Synthesising two approaches to the problematisation of the question of technology.
We live in the Age of Information. The technologies of Information and Telecommunications today represent the largest industry and the most extensive global system in human history. “This telecommunications network, where it is available, underpins all other sectors of the economy and society, including banking, mining, entertainment, manufacturing, agriculture, government administration, and even small business.” (Dunn, 2005) Not surprisingly, therefore, the question of technology has been repeatedly problematised in a number of ways. This essay attempts to identify and synthesise some of the main theoretical commitments contained in Jean Baudrillard’s “The Esctasy of Communication” and Hopeton Dunn’s “Globalisation from below: Caribbean cultures, global technologies and the WTO”. Baudrillard and Dunn problematise the question of technology in two very different ways. Dunn’s conceptualisation of technology, as presented in this chapter, is as a platform for development for the countries of the global South. He presents technology development as necessary to break the unidirectional power flows of top-down globalisation and generate the impetus for a new globalisation characterised by diversified and multivaried flows of information production, knowledge creation, cultural export and trade partnerships—hence the title, “Globalisation from below”. On the other hand, Baudrillard takes an existential approach, and focuses on the issue of the devastating psychological potential of living in a world dominated by unprecendented, unsolicited and inescapable communication flows. I intend to summarise the main ideas of both authors, and I will attempt to show where their ideas overlap and how they differ. I also attempt to give present-day context to the 2005 theoretical propositions of Dunn, which still hold relevance, and perhaps even more so, in today’s context.
Baudrillard’s chapter revolves around a discussion of two pairs of central concepts: scene and mirror, and screen and network. The scene, in Baudrillard’s discourse, is an analogy for the internal drama of psychological reality, while the mirror is presented as an analogy for the projection of the internal, intangible, psychological dimension onto external, material objects. Closely related to the idea of the scene, is the idea of the obscene, a notion which Baudrillard uses to describe the collapse of distance in our social experience. Traditionally, a scene is viewed upon a stage and therefore necessitates a gap between the viewer and the actor. In the same way, there is traditionally an element of distance or alienation in the social experience. For Baudrillard, the ob–scene exists because that social distance has imploded and there is no longer a scene (or stage of action) that we can view from a distance. “[T]he landscape, body, time, all progressively disappear as scenes.” It is this trend towards ever greater explicitness that is expressed in Baudrillard’s use of the term obscene. For Baudrillard, we are no longer a part of the drama caused by the distance in the social experience or the alienation caused by separation from the Other. Instead, “we live in the ecstasy of communication. And this ecstasy is obscene. The obscene is what does away with every mirror, every look every image. The obscene puts an end to every representation.”
It is important to note that the term obscene is not being used as a moralistic condemnation or an ethically loaded term for use in judgment over the morality of particular images or objects. Here, the prefix “ob-” is simply being appended to the term “scene” to refer to the idea of being against. Therefore, it is not “the traditional obscenity of what is hidden, repressed, forbidden or obscure; on the contrary, it is the obscenity of the visible…It is the obscenity of what no longer has any secret, of what dissolves completely in information and communication.”
Along with the concepts of mirror and scene (and ob-scene), Baudrillard also discusses the concepts of screen and network, a second pair of related concepts, which in a sense replace the earlier concepts of scene and mirror. Using an analogy from the medical sciences, Baudrillard concludes that “we are now in a new form of schizophrenia”, and that the schizo “can no longer produce the limits of his own being, can no longer play nor stage himself, can no longer produce himself as mirror. He is now only a pure screen, a switching center for all the networks of influence.” Therefore, an understanding of these terms is critical to a grasp of the problematisation being here posited by Baudrillard.
Just as the literal screen is a surface onto which images are projected or attached, Baudrillard’s screen can be described as a passive receptacle for signification, much unlike the scene, which is a locus of complex, internal drama. These screens “are not there to reflect objects and subjects with the distance and magic of the mirror. Instead, their goal is to link every tableau into a circular hookup that fuses all phenomena into a perpetual video devoid of any meaning. Hence, for Baudrillard, the ‘mirror phase’ has been supplanted by the ‘video phase’ [presumably, of television]” (Brummel, 2002).
Traditionally, the material world was understood as being composed of material things which could be observed or perceived, either by being presented to the sight or to other senses. However, the existence of a supplanting, mediated reality problematises traditional ontologies of the material world. “There is no longer any system of objects”. Baudrillard’s position here is not that the material world has ceased to exist but that the psychological dimension through which we organise our understanding of external material objective reality is challenged by the collapse of distance in the social experience. More specifically, Baudrillard is addressing the hyper-real representational capacity of video, as prefigured by the television. He argues that “the psychological dimension has in a sense vanished” and that “[p]eople no longer project themselves into their objects” What was traditionally projected psychologically as internal mental scene is now projected into the real space. The metaphorical scene has been replaced by simulacra; the absolute space has become the space of simulation.
Therefore, technology is not presented primarily as a functionalist enabler of social development, but as the root of at least two existential problems. The first problem is that technology “relegates to total uselessness, desuetude and almost obscenity all that used to fill the scene of our lives. It is well known how the simple presence of the television changes the rest of the habitat into a kind of archaic envelope, a vestige of human relations whose very survival remains perplexing…The real itself appears as a large useless body.” Like Baudrillard, Dunn expresses concern that about the potential negative effects of new technologies and he warns that we should “try to avoid the creation of a ‘tyranny of machines’.”
Regarding the private and public space, Baudrillard posits that “[t]he one is longer a spectacle, the other no longer a secret” because mediated reality eliminates the traditional opposition between exterior and interior “in a sort of obscenity where the most intimate processes of our life become the virtual feeding ground of the media”. This is a second existential problem presented in his article has to do with the loss of private and public space. Baudrillard posits that because there is no more scene, “all becomes transparence and immediate visibility, when everything is exposed to the harsh and inexorable light of information and communication.”
The problem presented by Dunn is different. Dunn sees Information and Communication Technology as having untapped potential for human and social development of the Caribbean region. However, he states that “existing global technology policy and the prevailing practices of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), as well as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank militate against the economic, social and cultural development of peoples in the global South” (Dunn, 2005)He therefore proposes that “[u]se of appropriate technology and creative adaptation of tools and content can form a potent counter-process of globalisation from below”. In Dunn’s conceptualisation, it is necessary for peoples of the global South to adapt “our strategies in relation to the technologies, as tools in the struggle”.
Therefore, Information and Communication Technology is framed from a vastly different standpoint in Dunn’s reading. Technology “is presented as the physical and intellectual tools that we employ in our bid to cope with our environment”. Dunn posits that technologies are not “neutral” but come with “certain built-in values conditioned by their point of origin”. Therefore, Dunn points out that “[e]ach society must carefully evaluate what technology is appropriate to deal successfully with its human and social needs”, and he identifies as one obstacle to this goal “the increased empowerment of transnational corporations”.
Another significant difference is that whereas Baudrillard seems to lament the onslaught of information overload, Dunn observes that the global South suffers from “Information Deficits” as a result of deficiencies in technological infrastructure and basic and media literacy. “[A]ccess is still a long way off for the majority of Jamaicans and other Caribbean peoples”. The divide between those who have access and those who do not is not simply along traditional geopolitical lines. Even with the countries of the global South, there is a growing disparity between “a small segment of computer-equipped and Internet-capable professionals” and “large populations that still cannot acquire basic information for economic and social survival”. Dunn therefore points out that this “rapid growth in the disparity between the so-called information-rich and the information-poor” is not only taking place between the industrialized and developing countries of the world, but also within the developing countries themselves.
Dunn uses this development-underdevelopment pattern as the basis for a conceptual model of flows of technology as essentially characterized by a centre-periphery dichotomy, consistent with the power-flows described by Galtung (Galtung, 1981). The model is composed of a large central circle surrounded by smaller, peripheral, satellite circles. The large circle represents the high-tech, industrialized North, where multinational corporations and global power systems, embodied in organizations such as the IMF, the WTO and the World Bank, are based. The small circles represent the global South. The centre-periphery dichotomy of the global South countries is represented by the fact that each peripheral circle contains a smaller circle inside it. However, the North is itself characterized by the same centre-periphery dichotomy, and this is represented in Dunn’s model by the fact that the large central circle also contains a smaller circle inside it. In fact, Dunn argues that it is the North that replicates this centre-periphery dichotomy pattern by embedding it in the technology that it exports to the underdeveloped economies of the global South. This exportation-perpetuation reality is represented in Dunn’s model by a series of arrows pointing from the small circle inside of the North central circle to each of the small circles inside of the South satellite circles. Dunn proposes that it is necessary “to create arrows from the periphery to the centre, in significant counter-flows and a more diversified process of globalisation.”
Dunn’s standpoint is validated by the continued appeals of cultural content producers of the Caribbean region, who today still struggle to produce, market and distribute original content in an inequitable global power structure that systematically disadvantages the global South. Speaking on the topic ‘Developing a Sustainable Content Creation Industry’, at the Caribbean Telecommunications Union (CTU) Caribbean ICT Roadshow in St Maarten in August 2010, Josanne Leonard, a leading regional expert in Caribbean Media, Communications, Arts and Culture, “Our content producers, aggregators and entertainment enterprises have not been enabled to reach local, Diaspora and new consumers through affordable band width and fast digital networks. It is a paradigm shift that the Caribbean has to embrace more earnestly” (Best, 2010) as Dunn states, “the forces and technologies deployed in a process of globalization from below are effectively a countervailing culture, created to advance people’s development goals. This movement already in flow, is also a potentially powerful force of resistance to the dominance of globalization from above by the powerful transnational, governmental and multilateral conglomerates of the present era.”
Dunn also mentions the concern that “information technologies will lead to ‘recolonization’ of these countries by large multinational”. Again, that concern is validated by voices such as Futurist Dr David Taylor, Chief Scientist at London-based Congress Global Consulting, who “warned that the Caribbean must start formulating its own unique intelligence services to inform all aspects of its political, social, human and technological development or else face ‘virtual re-colonisation’ as global companies, criminal organisations and other states impose their foreign policy on the region.” (Best, Virtual re-colonisation threat imminent, says futurist Dr David Taylor , 2010)
In a sense, both Baudrillard and Dunn paint dismal pictures of technology. Baudrillard concludes that “we will have to suffer this new state of things, this forced extroversion of all interiority, this forced injection of all exteriority that the categorical imperative of communication literally signifies”. Whereas Baudrillard’s words give the impression of resignation in the face of an ineluctable though undesired outcome, Dunn does not fail to propose a strategy to confront the difficult realities facing the global South. In fact, in a certain sense, his entire chapter builds a case for “an effort to counter the prevailing globalisation from above,” an effort which he defines as globalization from below. He defines globalisation from below as “the loosely coordinated us of both traditional and advanced technologies, by people in community-based trade union and professional and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), in the struggle for identity and socio-economic development” In his conclusion, Dunn plainly states, “Cultures of the world, including those in the Caribbean, stand a better chance of withstanding these technological and information flows if they seek both to modify the global technologies and to create their own products and services for economic, social and cultural development”
The key, therefore, is access. “Access to the means of networking has become a battleground in the struggle for cultural identity and economic space” (Dunn, 2005). This concluding statement to Dunn’s chapter hold true to this day. Just last month, some two dozen representatives from three sub-committees of the CARICOM Regional Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Steering Committee met in Trinidad to formulate a draft Implementation Plan for the Regional Digital Development Strategy. At the top of the agenda were the issues of Access, Connectivity and Internet Governance, then Business, Trade, Culture and Disaster Management; and finally Capacity Building.
The overarching goal of the CARICOM Regional Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Steering Committee is to transform CARICOM into a knowledge-based society, through the use of ICTs. The ICT4D Strategy sets a deadline of 2015 for full inclusion of the Caribbean Community into the Information Society, according to the CARICOM ICT for Development website.
Mrs. Jennifer Britton, Senior Project Officer of the CARICOM ICT4D initiative, explained that the week of meetings was a critical stepping stone in the developmental timeline.
“Last year, the CARICOM Heads of Government mandated that the Secretariat develop a [regional ICT] Strategy. This was completed in May 2010. In July 2010, we then moved to develop an Implementation Plan for the Strategy, to be tabled at the next Inter-Sessional meeting of the Conference of Heads of Government in 2011. This is why we’re meeting in sub-committee form to identify priorities to feedback to Heads of Government,” said Britton in a post-session interview on the second day of meetings.
In the opening session of the first day of meetings, Dr. Camella Rhone, an ICT Strategy Consultant hired by the CARICOM Secretariat, made it clear that the purpose of the meeting was to prioritise critical regional issues and to identify the approaches that should be taken to deal with these issues. This is the crucial purpose behind the Regional Digital Development Strategy.
A statement by Bevil Wooding, ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) Trusted Community Representative for Latin America and the Caribbean added more weight to Dunn’s viewpoint.
“The region is becoming increasingly aware that ICT development is not primarily a technical issue; it’s a social issue. The real priority on the agenda in this week of meetings is therefore how best can the region take advantage of existing innovations and developments in information and communications technology to facilitate real Caribbean development,” said Wooding, who chaired the Working Group sessions on Access, Connectivity and Internet Governance.
Mr Carlton Samuels, ICT Specialist and former Chief Information Officer at The University of the West Indies, almost echoed the words of Dunn, when he said, “The Internet has to be seen as a developmental platform for the region. The Internet, for us, is about social and economic development.”
Samuels described ICT as “a cross-cutting enabler of development”, and called for Caribbean researchers to do more fact-finding, in order to allow regional experts to interpret the data presented in international benchmarks such as the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDG), the International Telecommunications Union’s ICT Development Index (IDI) and the World Economic Forum’s Networking Readiness Index (NRI).
Today, Dunn is far from a lonely voice in the wilderness, in fact, ICT for Development (ICT4D) is now a sub-programme in the Office of the CARICOM Deputy Secretary General. The week-long CARICOM ICT4D series of meetings brought together representatives from the twelve of the fifteen CARICOM member states, five regional universities (including The University of the West Indies), the CARICOM Youth Ambassador, the Caribbean Broadcasting Union (CBU), United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (UN ECLAC), Caribbean Congress of Labour (CCL), Caribbean Association of National Telecommunication Organisations (CANTO), Caribbean Centre for Development Administration (CARICAD), Carinfo (the Caribbean Information Action Group, which is the successor body for the Consultative Committee of Caribbean Regional Information Systems), and Congress WBN, a Trinidad-based global non-profit representing Caribbean civil society.
The next immediate step in the process is for the Implementation Plan to be presented at the Fifth meeting of the Regional ICT Steering Committee in November 2010 in Barbados. The plan will then be presented to the regional Heads of Governments in early 2011.
If I am to include my personal view on these two chapters, I must for the sake of transparency first disclose that I am a self-confessed, passionately biased, Caribbean-based independent developmental journalist. My opinion is that Baudrillard may have been right about the need approach technology with caution, but I much prefer the standpoint of Dunn, who formulates a plan of action and rallies other to join him in his cause. Baudrillard and Dunn problematise the question of technology in two very different ways. Baudrillard’s existential approach seems to me to lack relevance to those attempting to use technology to develop a regional knowledge society. However, in summarising , the main ideas of both authors, I have still attempted to show that there is some degree of overlap, despite the obvious differences. I also attempt in the final section of this essay to give present-day context to the 2005 theoretical propositions of Dunn. The “struggle”, to use Dunn’s word, is very much alive today!
Best, G. (2010, August). Caribbean Region must support its own Cultural Content Economy. Retrieved October 28, 2010, from Expression of Interest: https://gerardbest.wordpress.com/2010/08/19/caribbean-region-must-support-its-own-cultural-content-economy/
Best, G. (2010, August). Virtual re-colonisation threat imminent, says futurist Dr David Taylor . Retrieved October 29, 2010 , from Expressions of Interest: https://gerardbest.wordpress.com/2010/08/19/virtual-re-colonisation-threat-imminent/
Brummel, K. (2002, Winter). Mirror. Retrieved October 29, 2010, from http://csmt.uchicago.edu/gloassary2004/mirror.htm#_edn24.
Dunn, H. (2005). Globalisation from below: Caribbean cultures, global technologies and the WTO. In G. T. Christine, & K. Nurse (Eds.), Globalization, Dispora and Caribbean Popular Culture (pp. 126-134). Kingston: Ian Randle.
Galtung, J. (1981). A structural theory of Imperialism. In M. Smith, & R. Little (Eds.), Perspectives on World Development (2nd ed.). London: Routledge.