By Megan Loucks
Parchment, Printing and Hypermedia: Communication in World Order Transformation
By Ronald J. Deibert
Fundamental changes in the world order are related to large-scale changes in the modes of communication. Yet “Parchment, Printing and Hypermedia” is not a story of a “master variable”. Ronald J. Deibert seeks to expand on the foundations of media theory, as provided by such scholars as Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan, without falling into the pitfalls of technological determinism. He seeks to create a fresh analytical lens with which to view the world. Deibert continually emphasizes his attempt “to articulate an open-ended, nonreductionist medium theory approach, embedding it in a much wider evolutionary perspective on human existence that I refer to as ‘ecological holism’”. His success in this goal is clearly achieved.
Interestingly, ecology is the base foundation of his argument. It provides an overarching framework that creates good clarity for what could easily have become a dense and scattered discussion. Faulting traditional approaches for focusing on single technologies, Deibert looks at the communications environment. By treating media as such, Darwinian concepts can be applied. Thus each world order transformation is explained as a result of a “fitness” between the interests of particular social forces and the communications environment. Some forces flourish, while others are put at a disadvantage. This ecological lens sounds simple enough, but it does very well in helping to explain the relationship between emerging modes of communication and the complex rise and fall of social, economic, and political orders.
In a helpful strategy, he divides his analysis of world order transformation into “distributional changes” (relative power of social forces) and “changes to social epistemology” (collective mentality/metaphysical underpinnings). The latter is a unique inclusion, but highly beneficial for his argument. It is about the “importance of mentalités collectives in structuring and orienting political behavior”. This includes social constructs, symbolic forms, and cognitive biases seen on both the individual, spatial, and community level.
Part I “The Medieval to Modern Transformation of World Order”
With the emergence of the printing environment, the papal-monastic network of the Catholic Church found that it could not thrive as well as other forces. With growing literacy, the secularization of learning, and skepticism regarding the formalist infrastructure of the church, the communications environment favored the strategic interests of the Protestant Reformation and scientific humanism. With the growth of printing presses, one religious heresy could spread ideas rapidly and cheaply to a wide audience. The single “Christian Commonwealth” of Europe faltered in step with the disintegration of cosmological ties. Deibert avoids attempting an exhaustive causal explanation of these complex changes. Rather he uses media theory to aid in our understanding of why certain things happened at that time and at that pace. The Protestant Reformation clearly would have been significantly slower or would have fizzled altogether if its interests hadn’t been so clearly in line with the opportunities created by the printing environment.
The printing environment was also conducive to the rise of the urban bourgeoisie and socioeconomic relations based on standardization, homogenization and formal contracts. This move away from overlapping loyalties (largely a result of dependency on oral communication) created a “leveling effect” on feudal social relations. This opened up the possibility of rule from one center. And lastly, this new communication environment favored state monarchs who, in alliance with urban bourgeoisie, sought to create “standardized rational policies and impersonal bureaucracies to administer them over clearly defined territorial spaces”.
Stressed in the Global Media seminar is the relationship between media infrastructure and media content. Deibert clearly agrees that this is essential. The essential properties of the printing environment, visual uniformity, mass reproducibility, and its standardized nature, fostered a certain social epistemology.
The foundations of modern individualism, the antithesis of medieval social order, were encouraged. For example copyright and authorship encouraged a novel pursuit of personal fame and fortune, while silent reading fostered abstract thinking and solitary, personal reflection. In terms of spatial biases, more rigid, linear definitions of political and social space were favored by the similar spatial biases created by cartography and the printed page.
Deibert completes this view with one last level of analysis: the imagined community. Language in the medieval world order was not delineated by political spheres. Printed language was able to achieve a “fixity” that written languages never could. This standardization of language became tied up with centralizing interests of monarchies and growing industries producing shared “national” vernacular languages. This major communication change created an altered sense of community within political boundaries, spreading the seeds for nationalism and thus the modern nation state.
Part II “Modern to Postmodern World Order Transformation”
In this section, Deibert speaks of the emerging “hypermedia” environment; an apt name to describe the convergence and ubiquity of various technologies. Tracing the military and commercial sources of technological innovation, he then focuses on the core properties of this environment: the movement from independent technologies to an integrated web, digitization, computerization, and innovations in transmission capabilities (internet, satellite, fiber optics etc).
The hypermedia environment favors those actors who have “an incentive to cross political barriers”. The ability to spread a lot of information incredibly widely and quickly encourages a trans-border flow of production ever-increasing in velocity and volume. Businesses are able to spread out risks and costs. This flow includes “multilocational flexibility”, and “transnational joint-ventures”: allowing “small locally based firms to reach a global audience” and “facilitating more flexible production keyed to the vagaries of local consumer tastes”. A high level of transparency is encouraged in everything from the political to the economic realm by dispersed centers of surveillance. All these distributional changes favor “negarchical” security arrangements while undermining “centralized/hierarchical forms of rule, or real-states”.
In the most eloquent section of this text, Deibert explains that all characteristics of this newest social epistemology surround one word: postmodernism. I predict this term has already joined “soft power” in Professor Der Derian’s categorization of painfully ubiquitous “sponge terms”. But in a refreshing twist, the second half of page 180 has an excellent definition of “postmodernism”. In this framework, postmodernism is treated as a coherent cultural development, a “species” whose “fitness” in this modern media environment is then analyzed.
Deibert proceeds to explain the “functional bias” of this environment towards “postmodern notions of fragmented identities” and a multi-dimensional “decentered” self. Previous notions of “authorship” and “sovereign voice” are not thriving in this new environment (think intellectual property rights, copyright, illegal downloading and the modification of images and video). The distinction between “public” and the “private” spheres of life has blurred (think consumer data and surveillance). On page 186 he again prevents deterministic accusations by making an important distinction: participating in this hypermedia environment does not “induce a sudden individual gestalt-shift to a ‘postmodern consciousness’”, rather it “opens up a critical space…in which the idea of a postmodern ‘multiphrenic’ self might seem more plausible…”
In explaining the transformation in spatial biases, Deibert makes one crucial point: digitization. The reduction of video, audio, graphics, and text to the common language of ones and zeros has allowed them all to intertwine and meld together. Our spatial biases increasingly lean away from linearity and towards a “mosaic” or “pastiche” : non-linear, overlapping, and discontinuous. Plural worlds are made as lines are blurred between “reality and irreality”. Juxtaposition connects contradicting and disparate ideas, objects, and images. This “intertextuality” can easily be demonstrated by a simple Google search or the moment you catch yourself channel surfing. In the years since this book was written, technological innovations have made even greater leaps in the extent to which one media melds into another.
In the broader sense of imagined communities, the media environment challenges the mass-broadcasting paradigm by favoring interactive, web-like communication regardless of geographical connectedness. This fosters the creation of overlapping “niche” communities or an “ecosystem of subcultures”.
A frequent focus of current IR study is the perceived decline of the state. In Deibert’s view, people are too quick to claim disappearance instead of looking closely to see fundamental transformations. From the lens he outlines, there is not a “withering away” of the state, but instead a “hollowing out” where new webs of authority are created and values are shifted. This idea is compelling and consistent with his philosophy throughout. In addition, Deibert’s expectation of conflicts being within and across states is proving true.
Global imagined communities are coexisting with multiple fragmented identities. Hegemonic “global market forces” are present with “counter-hegemonic movements of global civil society”. These diverging and converging forces, this fragmentation and integration, are operating simultaneously, creating the web we live in. With his skilled description of “postmodernism” it is no surprise that Deibert applies this postmodernist belief in the “indeterminacy” of things and the lack of a “master narrative” to his media theorizing.
By connecting modern changes to historical ones, Deibert explains transformation without neglecting the history’s inevitable continuum of change. Thus he carefully resists the frantic revolution hype typical of discussions about communication and media technology.
Deibert offers a way to view and interpret current trends with a useful lens that better adjusts to world we live in. Often we fail to properly adjust our viewing lens for our times, using instead the “conceptual blinders” of theoretical frameworks set by previous academics. Deibert realistically assesses both the limitations and advantages of creating a broad theoretical lens such as his. He is extremely self-aware in his construction of his own argument, relating it to media theory precedents and differentiating himself when necessary. His conclusions converge with those of many other theorists of different perspectives, yet he fills an important gap in IR theory. And despite his distaste for predictions, his expectations have proved remarkably accurate.