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French Version

Globalization and the 'free' flow of information

Concern is growing over US government protection of its abilities to reach untapped markets with targeted advertising under claims of free information flows...

JORDAN (Star) - Concern is growing over US government protection of its abilities to reach untapped markets with targeted advertising under claims of "free information flows".
The World Press Freedom Committee (WPFC) seemed to concur that such actions were legitimate saying, "We believe that the free flow of information is essential for mutual understanding and world peace." The WPFC sees a correlation between advertising and freedom of the press, suggesting without the income generated through advertising a free press could not exist. Thus suggesting without the advertising of large trans-national corporations (TNCs) a free press cannot exist and therefore those who resist this free flow of advertising/information are resisting the free press and thereby resisting freedom.

When globalization is examined in the light of the five previously discussed more passive efforts, some degree of cultural imperialism can be divined. But a more active form exists in activities such as this, termed Òsoft powerÓ. Soft power strategies are designed to control specific information causing people of other resistant nations to act and think as the provider of this information. By infiltrating a nation through communication pathways a controlling nation can defeat resistance to globalization desires from the inside.

From a political perspective, using propaganda to stabilize ethnic unrest and promote democracy is a positive thing, but it also gives birth to a cultural development for the acceptance of capitalism; something perhaps not desired by those being stabilized and developedÑat the very least this development may not be in their best interests.

Soft power proves to be cultural imperialism with a twist. Soft power, unlike the previous five methodologies, is a blatant attempt at control. Such attempts often yield results opposite of those desired. Soft power is cultural imperialism naked and unabashed. As such it rarely works.

Any effects, whether active as in the case of soft power, or a more passive means such as control over communication and data flows, are in the end filtered by the cultural capacity of the receiver. The bias of both the generator of such a message and the bias of the receiver must be considered. But the bias of an individual is really too vague to completely explain the resistance or lack of resistance a particular nation has to cultural attacks. The most lucid explanation of what actually controls a culture's capacity to embrace or reject outside input is found in an examination of the number and complexity of the culture's organizations and institutions.

In instances where these mediators "places of worship, cultural icons, leaders, schools" have a great hold on the culture of the nation through their complexity and history, the input of any imperialist machinery will be rejected outright. When the Shah of Iran made attempts to modernize, and hence westernize, his nation by filling the airwaves with the glories of the west. His intentions to suppress extremists failed miserably as the people of Iran wholly rejected western values that so differed from Islamic tradition.

These are traditions and beliefs of such complexity they present formidable resistance to the western way. This makes the people much less susceptible to "soft power" or other forms of cultural imperialism because a structure is in place. They have an alternative. They are not forced to accept the way of the West as the only means for "salvation."

There are other instances where western culture is accepted but modified by the receiver. South America has seen instances where on the surface US commercialism is rejected. But digging deeper it is apparent this commercialism/capitalism/globalism has been taken and modified. American lifestyles seen in film and television are not directly accepted but rather transformed into "Brazilianized faces" and thereby deconstructing and reconstructing a message to more aptly fit a cultural norm.

But at the other extreme are examples where cultural capacities are such that nations sacrifice their own best interest to be part of a globalist system. In Mexico a shift began in the Mexican diet resulting from the penetration of 130 TNCs into the Mexican market. These corporations poured millions of dollars into advertising and promotion for their products and increased the consumption of products that cost twenty times more than comparable native foods.

Yet the foods they promoted were much less nutritious than the native staples. But they made the TNCs money. Their profits increased by close to 27 percent. In essence the Mexican people stopped eating the cheaper and healthier foods of their tradition and their ability and opted for poor, processed, more expensive foodstuffs advertised and promoted by TNCs.

In India many left traditional occupations for more lucrative niche positions allowing them to buy the wares of the west. The television bombarded them with what they "need" and many within India began to accept they actually needed these products. For example, a decade ago India had only three or four brands of soap. Through television advertising and a variety of road shows "a sort of infomercial on wheels" there are now several hundred types of soap; more than nearly any other nation in the world, western or not. India moved from a near dearth of soap to one largest consumers in the world through a gradual cultural penetration.

The real need may not exist but the desire created and the acceptance of the advertised can, and many suggest did, change Indian society for the worse. Western ideals can be more "enlightened", but they are not necessarily so and certainly not superior by their nature. When they begin to replace traditional values and ideals that are key to the establishment of a unique sense of cultural identity a very significant danger exists.

Nearly all these unique identities are pared with unique non-western cultures whose value may not be fully understood by those promoting such development. And most recently many of these cultures have been Islamic prompting fears of the wars of "us" versus "them". The "free" flow of information's real cost might be in the homogenization of global cultures and in the end the loss of a diversity key to the development of man.

Editor's note: This is the second part of a series examining globalization and the potential implications of cultural imperialism.

J. Scott Tynes
The Star

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