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Globalization and Media

Media theory starts from the idea that a changed media technology also changes society and builds new communities. The state is the spoils of the parties and the parties are the spoils of the banks. Power starts from financial management, not from the people. For the first time, readers or recipients can also be senders. The net expands democracy.

In the age of global technical linkage, the power question is more radical than ever

By Peter Weibel

[This article published in the German-English cyber journal Telepolis 4/22/2011 is translated from the German on the Internet,  http://www.heise.de/tp/artikel/34/34590/1.html.
Peter Weibel is an artist and media theoretician.]

Globalization normally means membership in a common economy, a common market and a common currency. A common currency zone blocks historical utopias of social changes that can be first fulfilled in the future, not in the present. Agreements occur on prices and wages, credit-, currency- and debt questions to create a common economic zone: the world market. The global economy also means cheap global production. Modern mass capitalism tends to expand production in countries with low labor costs and without social expenses to earn more in the commodities.

Therefore the globalized economy, the free circulation of goods, commodities and capital, produces a globalized migration. According to the UN, 200 million people are searching for work. 200 million climate migrants fleeing from climate catastrophes produced by the global economy join them. Thus 400 million global migrants are seeking justice and happiness (the American constitution promises each of its citizens the pursuit of happiness).

The historical bonds of communities dissolve in the course of this mass migration through mass capitalism. A national economy has a hard time in the international division of labor. National cultures become blurred or merge in the worldwide culture industry. On account of these production structures of exploitation, migration movements increase in the globalized society created by homogeneous production structures. The historical constituents of community like common faith, common language, common rights, common religion and common cultures lose power. People with different forms of faith, language, culture and rights encounter one another in these global migration movements in the scope of a global economy. As a consequence of the globalization of the labor- and financial markets, the real economy and financial management, all other common interests like language, religion and nation whirl in confusion. On account of global capitalism, the mass migrations lead to the dissolution of past identifies of individuals in social groups, communes, ethnicities, states and faith communities. Terms like integration and assimilation or diversity and multiculturalism describe the problems arising out of this plurality as a result of the global economy.


Multiculturalism and multi-ethnicity are the key words with which conflicts are more paraphrased than described that arise through the presence of different ethnic, cultural, lingual and confessional groups in a universal homogenous economic space. The universalism of capitalism, the global triumph of capitalist ways of production, produces (seemingly paradoxically but in reality consistently) a new particularism. Capitalism foments xenophobia and an unparalleled racism, a fear of the other in the mega-cities of the world that can no longer fulfi8ll their historical functions as job machines. The pauperized, unemployed, uprooted and outlawed masses are housed in gigantic suburbs.

The "Diaspora" of migrants from the third world or from formerly colonized countries in the mega-cities of the first world leads to a revival of ideologies that Europe thought were overcome with the Enlightenment. A return of old affiliations holding fast to faith as a last bastion, that is the return of a fundamentalist religiosity, an intensified revival of nationalism in the sense of narcissism as the last bastion of the sovereign subject occurs since economic globalization shatters traditional affiliations and bonds like nation and culture. Migrants from all countries with different languages, religions and cultures meet migrants with different languages, religions and cultures.

The revival of the identity question happens through the global economy.

Therefore a partisan of particularism like Samuel Huntington wrote a book titled "Who are We. The Crisis of American Identity" (2004) because he believed this question could be solved in the "Clash of Civilizations" (1996). His solution is clearly an ethnic cleansing that draws a clear line of demarcation between white Americans and Hispanics. Huntington's answer to the crisis of identity is basically racist.

We owe two texts to Levi Strauss that he wrote for UNESCO in 1952 and 1971 in which these questions were answered differently. In "Race and History" (1952), he showed there is only one human race with a variety of colors and physical dispositions from which no hierarchies and rule systems can be legitimated on the basis of racist membership. For him, the term "ethnic group" is a socio-cultural construction.

In "Race and Culture" (1971), he demonstrated that a society tends to a homogenous culture since the cultural constructions of a society can refuse to change in order to preserve culture, language and customs. The capacities for reception and acceptance of a cultural community are limited. Therefore there is no normative multiculturalism. For the western world, this means it is multi-ethnic but not to the same extent multi-cultural. Its culture (at least ideally) is based on the principles of justice, equality before the law, equal standing of the genders, separation of state and religion, the idea of freedom, freedom of opinion, freedom of the press and solidarity.

These principles are relatively unchangeable even if they are not inalienable cultural values that in the West's view should be valid for all people and for the global economic area. Through the global migration movements, cultural identities mix in a way that culture and identity represent a new equality and no longer the conventional equality. Media theory can provide several elements for the values or variables of this new equation.


Media theory starts from the idea that a changed media technology, a changed information- and communication technology, also changes society and builds new communities. Media changes communication and thus society.

Global media and their speed of information-communication and processing guided by very complex algorithms have the most important share in globalization. The millions of daily financial transactions and the millions of daily passengers (100 million people are always in the air) would be impossible without the algori8thms and the media and machines running on them.

The experience of the plurality of languages, cultures and religions that becomes a problem in the global economic homogeneity is given another answer in media theory. Media theory starts from the fundamental observation that we have and speak a common language but do not think the same, that people have one body but do not act the same. The experience of plurality in both thinking and acting is possible despite homogeneity. In other words, the hardware can be the same while the software can be different. The operating system is crucial, not the machine. As we have learned anatomy is not our fate and the gene is not the place of our identity, we have developed an asymmetrical answer to the global homogeneity with the global net.

Criticism of globalism as I sketched by way of introduction has the disadvantage of being formulated from a corporative perspective. In it the individual is in the church, class, collective, cultures and traditions to which he or she belongs. Up to today the Greek "demos" and the Roman "populous" are often interpreted corporatively, not as the sum of individuals whom one trusts can decide for themselves. From the perspective of the media, the technical order as the core of the enlightened theory of progress was unable to realize this claim of the individual's capability of decision and action in democracy.


As everybody knows, democracy assumes that power starts from the people. The formula "omnis potestas a deo" (all power comes from God) was secularized by the formula "omnis potestas a populo" (all power comes from the people). In the mass society, people experienced how their right to power was restricted by delegating power to elected representatives and thus lost the exercise of power. The power of the people is only nominal. The people who basically have the full right to power are deceived about this power in several ways by modern mass democracy.

Modern democracies are based first of all on limited majority rule, secondly on election procedures and thirdly on representative transfer of power. These procedures restrict the power of the people so members of a successful electoral majority do not really exercise power. What is described as the "will" of the people, as volonte general, resembles more"consent." Thus the people only have a nominal power in a constitutional democracy.

In the 1960s, a theory of collaborative democracy arose whether in the form of direct democracy or a council-republic with the goal of the people participating in the exercise of power. These attempts failed for theoretical and technical defects. In the age of global technical linkage, the power question is raised more radically than ever. In the 20th century, we have witnessed transformations of democracy that made strong or weak authoritarian systems out of democracies, from liberalism to Stalinism. Most democracies are legitimate heirs of Lenin who answered the question "What is to be done?": "The party-machine must penetrate the state-machine" because "workers cannot have a social-democratic consciousness. This can only be taught them from the outside," namely by the party.

Therefore the state in all democracies is more or less the spoils of the parties. As the current economic crisis shows, the parties are the spoils of the banks. Power starts from financial management, not from the people. For that reason, the idea of global governance is condemned to fail as can be seen very clearly at the unsuccessful climate conferences. In the global market economy, the privatization of social relations, systems and organizations has led to a weakening of the state in relation to the market which represents an enormous danger for democracy.


The vague but best-known formulation of democracy, the 1863 Lincoln formula in Gettysburg "government of the people, by the people and for the people," was forgotten in the immediate politics. That government is there for the people and not vice versa, that the state serves the citizens and not the citizens the state and above all that the society has priority before the state, that "demos" goes before "crates," is forgotten.

The technical development, the development of culture since all culture is or uses techniques from writing to film and technical support media have led to a control and humanization of nature which has its temporary peak today in an extreme individualization. From the personal computer to the I-phone, we have developed a technology that gives individuals an extraordinary power over their environment. If he had to wait for millennia for the sun to change night to day, everyone can switch on the light by pressing a button today. Thus everyone can regulate his environment at will and on demand today irrespective of the real temperature of nature.

A new state was reached with the introduction of the net. In past technical culture, every individual was only a recipient with freedom of interpretation and thus access to truth. The introduction of the vowel alphabet by the Greeks enabled the scribes to understand the meaning of a text without the help of others. As long as there was only a consonant-alphabet, every word could have several meanings. A scholar was needed who had the monopoly on correct interpretation or truth. Thus the introduction of the vowel-alphabet was the beginning of the enlightenment of the come-of-age c citizen, the sovereign who can understand a text with his own intelligence. The second revolution, as everybody knows, was the mobility of letters through the Guttenberg invention of printing. Knowledge was not only mobile. The technical multiplication of books allowed the multi8plication of readers. The book was the first mass medium and the most effective means of the Enlightenment (see the French encyclopedia of Diderot and d'Alembert).

The mobility of the book continues in the portable personal computer and the mobile phone. The new technology from the PC to the iPad has radically changed the character of the mass media. The word "me" with the same meaning as I is already planted in the word media. Modern technologies are I-media or me-media. Therefore they are called iPhones or personal computers. From the mass media came the I-media. What was originally demanded for democracy, the possibility that the individual can decide for himself and that his decisions can contribute to the exercise of power, was technically possible.

For the first time in the history of the technical media, the recipient can also be the sender. The reader is always a recipient who can change the meaning of the letters but not the letters themselves. The reader can write in the net. In modern technology, everyone becomes a sender, something previously impossible in the history of culture. Centralism, whether of the state sender or the private sender, these stronger or weaker forms of absolute systems as reflections of absolute states, comes to an end.


If the reader has taken away the monopoly of interpretation from the high priests of letters, the net dweller today takes the monopoly of performativity from the politician. Austin described this in his work "How to make things with words" (1961). Every user can potentially influence the state of the social world today with his words. He can actually exercise political power and need not delegate it to those who earlier had the monopoly on performative power, namely the members of the party state from ministries to judges. Wikileaks is the first sign of the loss of monopoly.

The humanism of the Enlightenment finds its technical constitution in the global net, firstly because every recipient is also a sender in the net. Thus there are no mono-lateral and mono-focal relations any longer but more multilateral and poly-focal systems as implicit in the word net. The net is the technical expression of plurality that does not exclude identity. The net is the answer to the identity question raised by globalization. The net introduces the performative turn in which the net-dweller can share in the exercise of power. The horizon of democracy is opened up that goes beyond representative and constitutional democracy.

We experience the change from representative to performative democracy. Justice and equality, freedom and solidarity, these ideals of the Enlightenment seem to live on in the net. The culture philosophy that has problems with identity because of global migrations can learn from the model of the net that homogeneity does not exclude identity or plurality. The example of the piano shows us that different melodies can be played on a homogenous musical instrument. The net shows us we do not need any corporatist assignments like nation or religion to maintain identity. Not without good reason people speak of the net as "social networks" or "social media," online alter-egos and avatars (see Michael Heim, The Avatar and the Power Grid, 2001). The net is lodged in that gap that opens up in the global economic world between state and society, between kratos and demos.

The net allows us to contemplate a philosophy of history, namely the coming and the possible. Networks are applications of graph theory. We distinguish between random graphs and adjusted graphs. Adjusted graphs form the model of history, a history that has a goal and a purpose, for example progress to a more just society and free come-of-age citizens. We have lost faith in history as an adjusted or arranged graph on account of the totalitarian experiences in the 20th century that were full of historical promises of salvation and ended in cruel inhuman systems. We now live in a random history in a world of accidental graphs and in a random universe. The global market is seemingly the reflection of this cruel random universe.

From mathematics, we know random numbers can be generated through algorithms, that the accident or coincidence can be programmed. We hope that the global world can also be guided with rational humane principles with the "social network." Despite all their shady sides, the technical social media of today, the globally linked media promise a humane and enlightened answer to the dangers of globalization beyond the stereotypes of conservative culture theories.

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