Bram Dov Abramson on Wed, 8 Jul 1998 09:28:05 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> Imaging the Right to Communicate

[This piece was written to close the *Virtual Conference on the Right to
Communicate and the Communication of Rights*.  The event was hosted by
Videazimut: <>.]

Bram Dov Abramson and Alain Ambrosi, Montreal, July 1998

I. Mundial
II. Convergence
III. Citizenship

In the north of North America, video from soccer's World Cup drops in by
satellite and streams across a Montreal cafe.  To bathe in these images is
to take part in a hesitant, even vicarious experience.  Seasoned soccer
fans are sprinkled through a young, interested crowd.  The crowd's
knowledge of the sport is spotty -- but they feel the tug of media hype and
the pull of a planet bound by a game just beyond the US orbit.  Rising
above an unfamiliar format, the hopes and dreams of immigrants and
ancestries mingle with wistful gazes that yearn for alternate patterns of

As Enrique Macri pointed out last week, "la sincronia no es lo fundamental.
. . . La asincronia es para mi lo maravilloso, una asincronia que permita
la comunicacion."[1]  It is through the magic of asynchronous interaction,
not simultaneity, that the net reconfigures social time.  Somewhere between
the computer screen on a cafe table and the television screen in front, two
event-times have merged.  The closing moments of this Virtual Conference
become juxtaposed with the opening days of the Mundial, unearthing a
bizarre set of parallels.  The Mundial has gathered somewhat more attention
than the Virtual Conference, of course: yet the global reach of both events
is mediated by interoperable technological platforms.

These are platforms which, now and then, serve as repositories for a
longing utopianism.  Rhetoric about the Internet is well known. Recall Al
Gore's ringing address in Buenos Aires: "Every link we create strengthens
the bonds of liberty and democracy around the world.  By opening markets to
stimulate the development of the global information infrastructure (GII),
we open lines of communication."[2]  Now, Gore also declared that day that
"[t]he GII carries implications more important than soccer."[3]  But the
World Cup is organised by an international organization more far-flung than
the United Nations itself, complete with an emblem made of "two stylised
footballs shaped as the Earth's hemispheres (. . .) the familiar symbol of
this global fraternity united in sport."[4]  Make no mistake, it is a
fraternity whose evolution is a history of gendered exclusion.  Yet for
cafe soccer fans or Virtual Conference participants, the footopian Paris
cautiously embraced by at least one journalist is alluring: "Everyone has
access to the games at home, on television, free, and, of course, they
could also sit in a pub or cafe and watch.  But what's happened is that the
gatherings have come to nearly simulate the experience of being in the
park, of being part of the crowd.  That's the communal aspect of spectator
sport that's easy to lose among the seat licenses and corporate boxes."[5]

So let us not neglect this vision of universal access and widespread
community.  Still, when technological platforms bring a Virtual Conference
to properly skeptical internet users, or a soccer match to a confusedly
enthusiastic Montreal cafe, the result is a user base that is optimistic
but alert to what is on its screens.  Even such a devotee as the Uruguayan
writer Eduardo Galeano admits it: "Throughout the world, by direct and
indirect means, television decides where, when and how soccer will be
played. (. . .) The number of fans has multiplied, as has the number of
potential consumers of as many things as the image manipulators want to
sell."[6]  The World Cup is a simulation of participative globalisation.
Manipulated, its images penetrate the darkest corners, holding tanks for
planetary passions and childhood reveries.  But why must one have the deep
pockets of a corporation or state to record these images, or to air them?
In the cafe we wink knowingly, even gleefully at an alignment of world
powers where the USA is anything but the "Number One Society".  But in the
Mundial as in the USA, is it not global capital, from Nike to Televisa,
which drives development?

Galeano is a soccer-realist: "The days are long gone when the most
important clubs in the world belonged to the fans and the players. (. . .)
Today clubs are corporations who move fortunes to hire players and sell
spectacles, and they've grown quite accustomed to tricking the state,
fooling the public and violating labour rights and every other right." [7]
Those who talk of interactivity on the internet have much to learn from the
popular spectacle which is the televised Mundial, where media use is a
public activity opening out to frank discussion and impassioned debate.
Still, soccer may be revolutionary, but not utopian.[8]  Like its cousin,
community television, the televised Mundial is participatory only within
the narrow parameters afforded it by its institutional masters.

The internet is younger than television.  The interfaces and institutions
which define it are less rigid, and global capital is on slipperier terrain
here.  Perhaps dreamers of democratic globalisation are right to carry a
torch for the digital landscape.  Here too, though, the resources
marshalled by corporate capital yield impressive achievements, and those
with less find it hard to keep up.  Images flowing from underground video
screenings, large-screen Mundial matches and GIF-heavy WWW sites have this
in common: access to resources stands behind the way the image is chosen,
the extent to which it is diffused, and interpretation and decoding at
point of consumption.  The right to communicate cannot be understood
separately from the ways in which communicative resources are distributed.

After a flurry of activity around the proposed New World Information and
Communication Order in the late 1970s and early 1980s, discussion of the
right to communicate has lain dormant for a decade.  Now, however, fifty
years after the United Nations breathed life into the Universal Declaration
of Human Rights, the term and its debate seem to be making a come-back.
Globalisation today is characterized by a realignment of actors.  It is
also characterized by a realignment of the networks through which
information, labour and resources are allocated.  Amidst realignment,
cracks and breaches appear in the margins; it is in these momentary gaps
that the vision of a Martin Luther King or a Pele returns invigorated.  And
so, once again, the right to communicate is back.

Driven by hungry markets, the infrastructures that underpin globalisation
are undergoing change along two planes.[9]  The political plane operates
through global public policy to rewire the relationships between markets,
states and suprastate organisations.  The technological plane operates
through digital convergence and machinic expansion to legislate new
borders, altered spaces, eccentric time zones.  And the two planes operate
in conjunction to burst open and stitch together identities.  Old concepts
of territory die hard, but human topography's reorchestration is also
routed through newly contoured public spaces and new parameters for
political action.

Mixing tech and politics, the transactional spaces generated in information
and communication technologies zone in and out of overlays with existing
public and political spaces.[10]  From cyber-Zapatistas to digital
democracy dreamers, it is no surprise that the technological has generated
more hope than the political level: enthusiasm over the coalitions forged
in the margins of post-free trade border crossings is muted by footloose
capital's spectre.  What we wish to underline, though, is how these
technological and political infrastructures of globalisation gel and come
together at various hot points.  The use of the net to marshall opposition
to the Multilateral Agreement on Investment is but the latest in a series
of examples.[11]  At the crossroads of the evolving global infrastructures
are uncounted initiatives and untold alliances -- a series of heterogeneous
and tangled circuits.  Among them are the active circuitries and cells of

The autonomous initiatives and networked actions which constitute these
tangled circuitries are haunted by the ghost of "convergence", that early
'90s buzzword thrown around to point vaguely at new
information-communication alignments.  Usually, convergence is approached
as a technical issue: the convergence of broadcasting, telecommunications
and computer platforms.  Occasionally it is pointed out that
communication-information convergence is an institutional issue:
'broadcast' and 'telecommunications' were always policy and market
strategies, not technology's horizon of possibility.  Driven by market
expansion, digitization feeds into reconvergence.

But the circuitries and cells which interest us here are the sociotechnical
assemblages which bubble up and emerge in public space.  These are
alliances which come together around specific projects, in the style of
what business strategists term "virtual corporations".  Yet their
implications run far deeper than the project at hand.  Videazimut is a
global grouping of independent video and television creators.[12]  AMARC,
the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters, is an analogue
federation grounded in radio activity.[13]  And the Association for
Progressive Communications (APC) is a network of digital networks working
to enable social and environmental groups to exploit the on-line world.[14]
 Spurred on by technological, industrial and institutional convergence,
civil society convergence for these three organizations has meant increased
collaboration on common goals and shared objectives: like globalisation,
convergence is a slippery signifier, its content determined by its use.

But that is only an example.  The multiplication of transnational
consultations and federations such as the "G-8", created in Latin America
in 1995, or the London Platform in 1996, signal the global convergence of
already-constituted international networks.  Local actions are coordinated
globally in precisely the same way that international policy agreements
such as the World Trade Organization's General Agreement on Trade in
Services are implemented.  The right to communicate needs globalisation and
requires convergence, then: the question is not one of accepting or
rejecting these, but of staking a claim to their ongoing evolution.
Alongside corporate initiatives seeking to realign global resource flows,
civic efforts have defended the right to communicate. Political programmes
have laboured to explode the forced equivalence of citizenship with
consumption. Academic activism has sought to link research with targeted
intervention. These movements subsist on comparatively modest economic
means, and may not yet represent a bona fide alternative project -- but
they are reflected in a range of different communication practices, in the
creative appropriation of new communication and information technologies,
and in writing, educating and lobbying in arenas at all levels. The
commercial logic of communication and information is being challenged by a
logic which identifies itself unabashedly as a logic of public interest.
And in the countries of both the North and the South, state communication
policies are being influenced by civil society convergence.

New sets of questions are raised by convergence.  How do we cut into the
problematic which is the right to communicate when all things bleed into
each other?  How do we account for interconnected practices, networks,
institutions when, at every point of entry, the texture of our object of
inquiry realigns and reforms itself as a smooth surface?  This Virtual
Conference is a single tangled circuitry, an intersection of positionings,
practices and people gravitating to the right to communicate and attempting
to cut into this convergence at five places.  Legal perspectives: what are
the instruments and levers which award legal entitlements, throwing
machineries of state behind the edifice of social rights?  On the other
hand, these instruments and levers are only data without the normative
power that transforms their status.  Institutional machinations and the
play of power constrain and compose the actions of state machineries: how
can human action, channelled and hybridized with material arrangements to
form institutions, be appropriated, democratized, pressed into service for
more robust public spaces -- at a time when resource flows are more and not
less uneven?  Interlaced with institutional perspectives, then, are the
daily practices, mundane experiences, even identities that are constantly
in a state of flux, formed amidst our navigation of the structures and
strictures which institutional arrangements lay down.

Organisation of labour, imposition of force, denial or exploitation of
difference: built upon these, the inequities of sexual and gendered
discriminations lope across planet-wide publics and throughout history.  It
is a split which skews communication at every level: even as digital
cross-dressing becomes a mirthful pastime in the online real-time spaces
that are MUDs and MOOs, the dynamics of access to old and new media leave
one sex in and another one out.  Operating through and across the
perspective of gender, accelerating flows of humans across territory lend
urgency to our face-offs with the cultures of globalisation.  Culture
everywhere has always been hybrid, of course.  There is no 'before' and
'after' to globalisation, and yet the deterritorialization of communication
and interpersonal interaction demands that here, too, we locate a point of

Laws, institutions, genders and the cultures of globalisation: all of these
are pathways to parsing the right to communicate, and each refers back to
specific tasks and necessary strategies.  In a way, however, the fifth
pathway which is "public memory and civic education" is a strategic
perspective leading us, labyrinth-like, back to each of the other four.
Between official history and personal experience, public memory is at once
site of contestation and repository for communal wisdom, located somewhere
between material traces and half-remembered narratives.  Public memory is
the databank of public space, in other words, as contradictory and fragile
as are public spaces themselves.  And like public space, public memory is
as healthy or as sickly as those who work to constitute it through the
human, material and technological resources available to them.  Civic
education is the set of processes through which men and women acquire the
resources to tend to public memory's flame.  These processes lurk
everywhere, from the clearly marked corridors of educational institutions
or media literacy programmes to the nooks and crannies of the everyday
competencies that enable technical interactivity to fuse with democratic

Technopolitical globalisation breeds the cells and circuits of this fusion.
 Webs of organised action are incubated at the intersection of institutions
and practices.  These webs spring forth along a thousand lines of flight,
converging and reemerging en route.  The five points of entry identifed
here are at once arbitrary and necessary.  Indeed, let us hope for an
ever-shifting set of methods for carving up the right to communicate.  But
let us also make sure that, once carved up and processed, we find ways to
link these back up into a program of research and action that intervenes at
different levels.

In his introduction to a book entitled "Cosmopolitics", lawyer and English
professor Pheng Cheah says this: "[W]here intellectuals participating in
anticolonial liberation movements had considered the loose hyphen between
emerging nation and state in colonialism as an opportunity for a popular
renationalization of the state, the postnationalist takes the distending of
the hyphen in contemporary globalisation as a sign of the disintegration of
both nation and state."  Postnationalists, says Cheah, hope that "the
constraining discourse of nationalism/statism can be transcended through
acts of thought and imagination that find sustenance in a large variety of
existing transnational movements."[15]

Staking out the right to communicate involves locating it on a landscape
which, increasingly, is both global and digital.  That means taking stock
of the disjuncture between "nation-" and "-state".  The "postnationalist"
position can help with that.  But it's not enough.  Globalisation or no,
states are not withering away.  Instead, as Cheah points out, they are
taking on new roles.[16]  We have only to look at the Mundial to confirm
this.  Soccer players who normally compete for club teams in Germany or
France proudly re-dye their hair to match their Nigerian or Brazilian
jerseys and face off against regular-season teammates.  This is anything
but a contradiction, and there is no hint of divided loyalties here:
transnationally circulating capital provides the resources in which club
fans and nation-state fans alike invest their passions.  To oscillate
between cheering for a Premier League team and rooting for a Mundial squad
is to finger a coin whose two faces are identical: those of footloose
financial flows.

This is the coin tossed by the state.  The nation-state is a star in
globalisation's current line-up, coached carefully to be a team player in
the campaign for internationally integrated markets.  Technological and
institutional convergence extends this campaign across the entire
landscape.  But convergence also means that the landscape is cluttered with
many more players than those recruited by markets alone -- players whose
action or inaction defines the conduct of an active citizenry.

Being a citizen is a question of speaking and acting up.  When citizens are
inactive, democratic citizenship risks being evacuated by a globalisation
that restricts itself to markets.  When citizens are active, they adopt
political choices and develop civic practices which take economics into
account, but work towards bottom lines expressed in social implications,
not just dollar figures.  Citizenship is a question of assuming
responsibility, though to define it is perhaps vain: it is more useful to
identify citizen practices.

The debate which Cheah outlines, then, is a debate over how such practices
can be identified when their geopolitical context is reconfigured by
globalisation and convergence.  The anticolonial and postnationalist
intellectuals he names bring to mind the researchers, students and teachers
who were substantially represented among Virtual Conference participants.
Their presence underscores the academic world's necessary social
responsibility as a space both for criticising existing practices, and for
incubating new practices to be distributed through social territory.  But
their presence also underscores the way that globalisation and convergence
act as parameters of debate across different spheres.  The distribution of
resources and of access are the heart of the right to communicate; the
networked environment is its current condition.  This holds true for the
few who act within this environment, and for the many more whose literacy
extends neither to the net nor even the alphabet, yet whose living
conditions are affected deeply by these technologies whose decision-making
structures lie worlds away.

One common response to the question of identifying citizen practices for
the right to communicate is to look for expansion of the third sector,
known variously as democratic or alternative media.  This is especially the
case in the broadcast sector, where the third sector's ability to foster
wider citizen access to media is dampened by its economic marginalisation
-- the direct result of industry-driven policy-making.  Earlier, we spoke
of a longing utopianism which inhabits the citizen's gaze at
globalisation's screens.  When turned toward the third sector, that same
vision conjures up images of technology-enabled access for all and an
internet which collapses State, private and third-sector media into a
single mediascape.

This is possible.  But it is not easy.  In particular, it cannot be
accomplished without acknowledging the fundamental continuity with
experiments already undertaken and paths already travelled.  Now, as then,
impasses arise when media access and participation are institutionalized as
the "third sector".  Recognized by legal frameworks, institutional lethargy
and bureaucratic coating can nip the creativity of communication
democratisers in the bud.

One danger is that of babelisation: community or cultural groups exercises
freedom of expression in making and diffusing their own content, but end up
speaking only of themselves and to themselves.  Take "public access" radio
and television: based on the principle of freedom of expression, many
spiral into media whose sound and image are but the juxtapositions of
voices and self-referential "channels" -- the sum of which makes no sense.

The other trap is ghettoisation of the third sector at community or local
levels.  Too often, allocating technical tools and laying legal frameworks
for the possibility of a third media sector ends up confining the cells and
circuits of civil society to local problematics.  They are expected to
produce, consume and make do with content whose low quality matches its
lack of resources.  What's worse, this usually ends up distancing artisans
from any attempt at influencing the institutional and political mediascape.
 In already existing policy environments like Canada or, to a lesser
extent, Belgium or the Netherlands, that is the impasse led to by formal
legal recognition of the social media sector.

Babelisation or ghettoisation, the common denominator here is enclosure in
media environments removed from politics and no longer representative of
democratic life in public spaces.  Don't the networked interactions of the
digital sphere leave babelisation and ghettoisation behind?  No more than
policy intervention can forget about the state, which is to say, not at
all.  Networks are never simply technological.  Not even satellites are
dropped to Earth from the heaven above; communication technology arrays are
sociotechnical affairs, and the material resources on which they depend are
put into play by flesh and blood.  The right to communicate remains a
question of resources and their strategic deployment.  To avoid
babelisation and ghettoisation, communicators need to adopt a multicultural
approach which extends far beyond linguistic translation and into the
desire to listen, comprehend and interact with others.  We are referring to
language, but not only in its traditional sense: an infinite number of
tongues, chattering and silenced, are organised into languages and
discursive codes which harken back to all of the factors that compose
cultural diversity.
Citizenship beyond babelisation and ghettoisation demands a process of
double democratisation.  One: autonomous public zones must be created
within civil society, where discussion of democratic practices can enrich
and influence society.  These are not zones which exclude uncivil actors;
they extend an open call, but ask participants to commit to an ethics of
citizen practice.  Two: institutions and practices must be democratised in
the political sphere.  Citizens or civility are not excluded here, either:
rather, the dangerous politics of interface design are constantly in
motion, hoping to move back and forth between bodies civic and politic
until the state is but the tool of its citizens and movement between the
two is a blur.

Double democratisation is an agenda for strewing the right to communicate
across the planetary social field.  The targets here are at once
intranodal, located in the practices that constitute civic spaces, and
internodal, contaminating the institutional posts which inhabit and spill
across those spaces.  If these nodes are constituted in the heat of
informed action, their roots are in the citizens that constitute them.
Education is the incessant formation of citizens; its content is determined
by uneven access to decision-making, and its hard-won gifts are the
citizenry's tools for speaking and acting up.  Like communication itself,
citizen education happens in myriad spaces and endless places.  Always,
though, it goes hand-in-hand with access to sociotechnical, economic,
cultural resources, to name but a few.  At the heart of the right to
communicate, we have been arguing, is access to decision-making processes.
This requires exercising the resources that guarantee access, and demands
that access be an entry-point to processes with tangible means and palpable

Globalisation and convergence?  The ground is shifting beneath us.  And
like the soccer player who rises from slum to stardom, or like his fans --
for it is always "his" -- citizens can dream of digging their cleats into
the shifting ground to direct its very movement.  But even segregated into
a gendered array of unconcerned bystanders, fans and player-heros, today's
footballers are obliged to align their movements with the decorum that
reigns inside the walled stadia or glowing television that stage the event.
 Today's citizens, on the other hand, can mobilize dreams of democracy to
rewire alliances, rejig policies, reroute technologies, even rewrite the
rules of the game.

[1] Enrique Macri, message on "Utilizacion y Abuso de los Medios".
Internet: <>.
[2] Al Gore, "Call for a Global Information Infrastructure".  Paper
presented at the World Conference on Global Telecommunications Development.
 Buenos Aires: International Telecommunications Union, 1994.  In Alain His
(ed.), *Communication and Multimedia for People.*  Paris: Transversales
Science/Culture, 1996.  p. 77.
[3] Gore, p. 77.
[4] FIFA web site: <>
[5] Stephen Brunt, "From rebellions to soccer", Globe and Mail, 25 June
1998, A19.
[6] Eduardo Galeano, *Soccer in Sun and Shadow*.  Mark Fried, transl.
London: Verso, 1998.  p. 170
[7] Galeano, pp. 187-188
[8] "The Internet is revolutionary, but not Utopian." D.S. Bennahum, B.S.
Biggs, P. Borsook, M. Bowe, S. Garfinkel, S. Johnson, D. Rushkoff, A.L.
Shapiro, D. Shenk, S. Silberman, M. Stahlman, S. Syman, "Principles of
Technorealism".  Internet: <>, 1998. 
[9] Bram Dov Abramson, "Recomposing Citizenship: Communication Policy
Dispersal and Market Expansion."  Unpublished draft, Montreal, 1998.
[10] Alain Ambrosi, "La difficile emergence des reseaux internationaux de
communication alternative."  In S. Proulx & A. Vitalis (eds.) Medias et
mondialisation: vers une citoyennete nomade.  Bordeaux: Editions Apogee,
[11] Madeleine Drohan, "How the Net Killed the MAI", Globe and Mail, 29
April 1998.  Guy de Jonquieres, "Network Guerrillas", Financial Times, 30
April 1998.
[12] Videazimut website: <>.
[13] AMARC website: <>.
[14] APC website: <>.
[15] Pheng Cheah, "Introduction Part II: The Cosmopolitical -- Today".  In
P. Cheah & B. Robbins (eds.) *Cosmopolitics: Thinking and Feeling Beyond
the Nation*.  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998.  pp.32-3.
[16] Cheah, pp.33, 34: "The necessity of popular nationalism as an agent of
ethico-political transformation in transnationalism becomes clearer once we
observe that, notwithstanding increased transnational labour migration in
the contemporary era, the deterritorialization of peoples remains limited
for reasons that are structural to the global political economy. (. . .)
For social redistribution to occur, the state must resist structural
adjustment.  But resistance is possible only if the state is made to serve
the people's interests.  Thus, instead of producing large groups of
deterritorialized migrant peoples who prefigure the nation-state's demise
and point to a postnational global order, *uneven* globalisation makes
popular nationalist movements in the periphery the first step on the long
road to social redistribution."

   Bram Dov Abramson         
   C.P. 48099 - Montreal Quebec - H2V 4S8 - Canada
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