The Unequal Treatment of Media and Communication Technologies

By Patricia Rana ’21, a Communications and Media Studies major and Arts Management & Entrepreneurship and Journalism, Editing, & Publishing minor.

The following work was created for CMS 294-10: International Communications.

Brief description: The paper aims to answer the question, “Do media and communication technologies treat all users equally regardless of their country of origin?” It brings to attention the imbalance of power that technology creates for its users around the world, from individuals living in first-world countries to those in third-world countries.


Do Media and Communication Technologies Treat All Users Equally Regardless of their Country of Origin?

From the creation of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in 1440 to today’s video streaming services of Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon, media and communication technologies have increasingly developed in ways that have benefited societies by creating an area of convenience for its users. But in another light, although the existence of these technological advancements has uplifted the convenience of living for many, at the same time it creates hardships for those on the other end of the spectrum. Those who live in developed or first-world countries hold a different kind of experience when it comes to their utilization of technology versus those who live in developing or third-world countries. By taking these differences into account, it is clear that these are the result of an imbalance of power among nation-states around the world. The media and communication technologies fail to treat all its users equally due to a significant imbalance of power that can be seen through the political, economic, and social implications that lead to a greater digital divide.

Political figures and their governance carry an immense power as they establish and enforce the rules of and ways that the mass public functions within society. One of those ruling policies involve the internet in relation to who gets to govern this virtual, “borderless” world (Goldsmith & Wu, 2006, p. 49). When considering the fact that the internet is governed by powerful figures, it leads to question the manner of how this process is executed along with how the masses that use the internet are affected. For instance, the creation of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), as mentioned by Hans Klein (2004), “has the potential to radically change the nature of the Internet. By putting in place all the mechanisms needed for the creation, promulgation, and enforcement of regulations, ICANN makes effective internet governance possible for the first time” (p. 180). Simply put, ICANN’s functionality is to provide web addresses to every single computer in existence, while simultaneously managing the entire domain naming system (DNS). However, an overlooked point exists within ICANN’s system; the web addresses being generated are in the English language. This exhibits an act of governance in favor of the western point of view as the English language becomes the lingua franca of the internet. In turn, how does this affect the rest of the world where their native language is not English? Since the language of the internet was established by westerners for westerners, those who do not naturally fall into that particular group are cornered into the act of cultural assimilation. Ultimately, the result of such a system creates hegemony under one ruling class across nations and eliminates the diversity that was once there, leading to the unequal treatment of users in other areas that do not fall within the western world.

The same viewpoint of how governance unequally treats its users can be drawn from Professor Daya Kishan Thussu (2006) where he argues that the western governments’ perception of “’free flow’ [information] helped ensure the continuing and unreciprocated influence of the Western media on global markets, strengthening the West in its ideological battle” (p. 42). Thussu emphasizes the consistently singular direction of the western world’s influential power on other nation-states, as this carries a substantial weight of inequality, and more so, abuse to the individuals that are forced to comply with these ruling ideas. In this case, what once was an imbalance of power between a dominant nation-state and an oppressed nation-state has transitioned into an abuse of power. In the context of global markets, commercial products and services advertise western cultural beliefs system as witnessed in today’s society. For example, Coca-Cola is an American-based corporation that sells carbonated soda to its consumers. As a result of the success with their soda products, they have expanded to other continents of the world to the extent where their product is undoubtedly recognized by many individuals; the Coca-Cola product transcends the significant barriers that once separated other nations from each other. In other words, it does not matter what language one speaks or what cultural beliefs one holds—once they come across this product, they will recognize it, which proves to show the strong influence of westernization within the global market. With this in mind, the same notion of uniformity across national borders persist with the intention of ignoring other users’ personalities (social, political, economic) which produces an unfair disadvantage.

On the account of disadvantages, we turn to Rostow’s stages of growth model, as his model exemplifies the bias towards westernization. In his work, Rostow (1960) talks about the motivation for European colonialism: “Colonialism arose…from the fifteenth century on, a world arena of power existed in which the European nation states competed in various overseas areas for trade” (p. 108). As Rostow talks about colonialism, he does so from the western perspective as he only mentions the successes of European nations’ colonialization of other nations. As he reflects mostly on European developments, he implies that the stages of economic growth within a nation is neutral. By that, he means that nations can achieve modernization by merely following these improving stages of growth. But in reality, this proves to be untrue, because the countries Rostow mentioned as having basic foundations of natural resources and population size were just an uncanny timing of events in which they occurred. This means that the stages of growth or modernization are not the same for every nation, rather it is achieved through various means in each given economy. 

With focus on the economic advantages of nations, we turn to Starosielski’s (2015) The Undersea Network, specifically where she delves into the dynamics of buying power between white-collar workers and blue-collar workers. According to Starosielski (2015), “in Japan, Korea, and the United States, money is regularly transferred to the fishing industry so that companies can lay cables, but this practice also goes on informally” (p. 158). To put it another way, private corporations inconspicuously pay fishermen a sum of money to leave the surrounding waters so undersea cables can be properly laid out. In fact, this scenario truly highlights the famous saying of how “money talks,” since it is obviously clear who possesses more power. The industry of media and communication technologies wield a great amount of global power as previously mentioned (in the countries of Japan, Korean, and the United States), but at the same time, the industry also demonstrates how its power hinders the abilities of other entities. As fishermen, they must catch seafood in a specific area to accomplish their job, yet the intrusion of private corporations has altered the course of their profession, as now they have restricted mobility while private corporations have the ability to create technological developments.

In order to propagate the message of the media, it is essential to have the communication technologies to do so. One of the leading technological companies in the world, Apple, have established a strategic marketing plan to maximize their profit margin. To meet their profit margin, Apple began outsourcing jobs to the developing country of China where “most of the people at Foxconn earn just over two-dollars an hour and strive for a sixty-hour work week” (ABC News, 2012, 01:55). To further emphasize the situation, eighteen workers committed suicide by jumping out of the factory buildings due to the pressure of the workplace, overworking themselves, and the low standard of living within the factory grounds (ABC News, 2012, 02:15). Needless to say, the privilege and luxury of owning a sophisticated piece of technology, like the Apple iPad, inadvertently comes at the price of other peoples’ lives. These Chinese workers come from a developing country, and because of this, they strive to elevate their standard of living to survive. As mentioned by ABC News’ Bill Weir, “in a world ever hungry for gadgets, these people [Chinese workers] are all too easy to exploit” (ABC News, 2012, 02:02). Major corporations, in this case Apple, have heavily exploited these workers’ desires which creates not only an unequal treatment of this group, but a major abuse of their overall being as humans. 

Similar to China’s workers are the e-waste workers in India who undergo the same ordeal of exploitation, and worse, as they rummage through used computer parts while inhaling toxic fumes to strip for metal. In Greenpeace International’s mini documentary, they pan through a line of e-waste workers as they sit on stools and set fire to circuit boards. The goal of this is to strip off the computer chips and transistors to collect the remnants of metal, typically copper (Greenpeace International, 2008, 00:40). The concerning aspect of this process is that none of the workers are wearing any sort of protective equipment; they do not have any masks to prevent themselves from inhaling the noxious fumes of highly hazardous metals such as lead, mercury, and cadmium (Greenpeace International, 2008, 00:25). The health and safety of India’s e-waste workers is jeopardized as they continue this job day-to-day as a means of making profit to survive. 

It is important to understand why India became one of the places where electronic waste gets discarded. The cost of recycling a computer varies significantly between the United States and India. In the United States, the approximate cost of recycling a computer is twenty-dollars, while it only costs approximately two-dollars in India (Greenpeace International, 2008, 05:49). By examining this on an even larger scale, the reason behind the surplus amount of e-waste in developing countries like India is due to “the exponential growth of personal computers in the market and their rapid rate of obsolescence” (Greenpeace International, 2008, 02:20). The concept of planned obsolescence regarding technology is traced back to the companies that create these products. In a marketing aspect, instead of manufacturing a product built with long-lasting qualities, private companies focus on the quantity of their products as this means a higher number of sales and money. The moment these technological gadgets reach their full capacity, their users have the easy option of either discarding or recycling them by dropping the gadget into a local recycling center. “Out of sight, out of mind” becomes the caveat of this entire situation, as it shows the imbalance of consequences between two different groups. There is the group who simply discards an item they no longer want or need, but on the other side of the spectrum lies the group who must deal with the consequences of someone else’s disposals. 

The unequal treatment of users by media and communication technologies is not regularly thought about, because the unequal treatment is not seen within the immediate vicinity of those who are not affected by it. The political implications posed by the western viewpoint of thinking have created a dogmatic structure, both online and offline, with the standardization of the English language. This follows into the economic implication of a staggering power dynamic between individuals that wield more power than others, in terms of who has more financial wealth. In the same sense, the power that comes with financial wealth also carries the power to negatively impact others, especially the underprivileged. It is crucial to raise awareness for matters such as these, because there are individuals and societies who are struggling, if not suffering, from the unequal balance of power that is the great digital divide.

References

[ABC News]. (2012, February 21). Foxconn: An Exclusive Inside Look [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jk-xqPKOxl4.

Goldsmith, J. and Wu, T. (2006). Who controls the internet?: Illusions of a borderless world. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. 

[Greenpeace International]. (2008, February 22). Where does e-waste end up? [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0JZey9GJQP0.

Klein, H. (2004). Private governance for global communications: Technology, contracts, and the internet. In S. Braman (Ed.), The Emergent Global Information Policy Regime (pp. 179-202). London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan. 

Rostow, W.W. (1960). The stages of economic growth: A non-communist manifesto. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Starosielski, N. (2015). The undersea network. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. 

Thussu, D.K. (2006). International communication: Continuity and change (2nd edition). New York, NY: Bloomsbury USA.  


Trish Rana is a junior at Washington College majoring in Communications and Media Studies with a concentration in business and organizational skills. Additionally, she is double minoring in Arts Management & Entrepreneurship and Journalism, Editing & Publishing. She has been a Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience intern since the summer of 2018 where she helps curate and archive interviews for the National Home Front Project which focuses on preserving the knowledge of World War II through oral history.

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