Friday, September 4, 2009

New Technology and Censorship

This aesthetic marvel is the Žižkov television tower, located in district 3 of Prague in the Czech Republic. It was commissioned by the Russians during the Communist occupation, purportedly to block transmission messages from Western stations like Radio Free Europe, and was completed a few years after the collapse of the Berlin Wall. (The shiny, faceless babies scaling the side are part of an art installation added nearly a decade later.) The enormous tower is one example of the sort of Soviet censorship techniques Daya Thussu describes in "The Historical Context of International Communication."

In "The Origins of the Information Revolution," Elizabeth Hanson describes attempts by political and religious leaders to stifle early printed communication not simply by censoring it, but by preventing its creation and spread. And in "The Emergence of Technical Networks," Armand Mattelart notes that the large news agency networks arose in tandem with a reduction in press censorship in France, Great Britain and the United States. Although none of the writings focus exclusively on issues of censorship, all three describe historical efforts to stifle or promote the free exchange of information.

Thussu's writing opens with the assertion that "communication has always been critical to the establishment and maintenance of power over distance." It goes on to describe how growing use of the telegraph revolutionized military communications and promoted the growth of major international news agencies that helped shape readers' views on foreign countries. The goals of military supremacy and generating public support combined with more sophisticated technology in Cold War propaganda broadcasts, in which the U.S. and Russia both attempted to spread their ideology. On page 18, Thussu describes censorship in terms of military strategy: "Since there was scant interest among Western populations for Russian international broadcasts, Western governments did not have to worry about jamming them. In contrast, the authorities in Moscow tried to interfere with Western broadcasts, seeing them as a network of 'radio saboteurs' subverting the achievements of socialism."

Hanson's writing opens by describing the effects of Gutenberg's printing press, which, among other things, threatened the Catholic Church's longstanding monopoly of printed materials and information distribution. Recognizing the threat, the Catholic Church made a list of forbidden books and saw that printers and distributors of "heretical" texts were arrested or killed. Nonetheless, the new technology enabled dissidents like Luther and Calvin to spread their views and gather followers and weakened the Catholic Church's control—not only of information, but of the population as well.

Mattelart's sprawling essay covers wide and varied terrain, including the rise of international news agency networks. He argues that laws granting greater press freedom promoted the development of mass media, although his subsequent description of William Randolph Hearst's contribution to the Spanish-American war in 1898 demonstrates a potential downside of a too-powerful free press

As these writings focus on the growth of communications technology in recent centuries, each of these writings confirms that communication is an important element in maintaining power, and that it can also be an important tool for challenging power and upsetting the status quo, which may explain why innovations in information and communications technology are often accompanied by attempts at censorship from those in power.

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