Imperialist vs. imperialist. Pirate vs. pirate.
I’ve been reflecting recently on the use of old terms with long-entrenched meanings to describe different facets of the relationships between media and old socio-economic-political structures. Information imperialism is one term that has been used a lot recently to describe various sides of the conflict between China and Google. On the one hand China has been labelled an information imperialist as a result of its heavy-handed government approach to controlling the flow of information: if they disagree with it, they’ll blatantly try to censor it. China, on the other hand, has hit out at the US for being an information imperialist due its strong support of Google, the idea here being that the US is trying to force a specific type of Western-centric knowledge into the heads of Chinese internet users. Then we also have Google: a company that, in many ways, relies on the free creation, flow and mixing of information. But a company that, at the same time, has been able to construct its own form of information imperialism. What other entity in the history of humantiy has had such a great degree of unsupervised power in determining what we see and what we don’t? While China wants to restrict what information is visible and what information is invisible, so too does Google (albeit in very different ways and for very different reasons).
Moving swiftly on to pirates, we also see the same term applied to different groups on different sides of the same issue. Last summer, the arrival of the new East African fibre-optic cable was delayed for weeks due to the very real threat of piracy. It is interesting though that Somali pirates were blocking the potentials of a very different type of East African “pirate.” It will be interesting to see how much of the East African underground economy moves from the world of guns and speed boats to the world of botnets and fraud.
The link between these two cases is more than a semantic overlap between terms that can be used to express very different meanings. In both cases, the internet introduces radical positive economic, social and political potentials. Yet it simultaneously leaves open the possibilities of new forms of control and abuse that can be defined using the same words as the systems and structures that they replace (but operate in new and often unexplored ways). Entrenched terms and metaphors can often help us to understand new processes, new contexts and new relationships, but in many cases it seems that we simply need to stop relying on so many old words in new contexts.
Battling the Information Barbarians: Wall Street Journal