The view from the global village


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The global village is dead! Long live the global village!

That was the verdict of a panel of MIT faculty and students discussing the US and international media behavior in the wake of terrorist attacks on New York, Washington and in Pennsylvania on Sept. 11.

The discussion, the first of a series of teach-ins to be held at MIT, took place in Room 26-100 on Thursday (Sept. 20). The seven panelists leavened serious analysis of recent events with appreciation for the diversity of media in the Internet Age. They referred often to the global village, an image created by Marshall McLuhan to denote a world unified by access to information.������

The global village itself, they noted, was an icon of the post-Second World War media age, an age in which US media dominated all others. Today, media arises from a thousand such villages, with millions of citizens involved in media expression.

They illustrated with examples including poetry, video clips, computer screens, web sites, personal narrative and the cover of The New Yorker, making their collective point that while US television dominates the world news market, the presence and reach of Internet technology has given grassroots and alternative viewpoints fertile ground and growth.

Professor Henry Jenkins, director of the MIT Comparative Media Studies program (CMS), said, "This is not to downplay the power of corporate media ownership and the narrowing of viewpoints caused by competition within the media to maintain profits."

The vitality and honesty of the media can and should be enriched by an active citizenry, said Jenkins. "We should educate ourselves on the conventions of journalism. We can protest biases as we encounter them. And once major events have passed, we have an obligation to remember media behavior and continue to analyze it. We must ask, 'What kinds of media does democracy need?'"

Ingrid Volkmer, CMS visiting scholar, noted that with 400 satellites orbiting the earth, news reaches far beyond what was imaginable in Marshall McLuhan's time, the late 1960s. "The global discourse is not yet established by CNN or any other media," she said. The initial flood of images may come via CNN, she said, but today that's just the first phase of coverage and of interpretation.

The next phases occur at the regional, local and personal levels.

"Regional media set a local tone very quickly, framing US images and translating them to local cultures. In Spain, the images from New York are framed by references to Basque separatists; in Britain, by references to the strength of the US-UK alliance; in France, by references to their suffering from Arab and Muslim attacks," she said.

Jing Wang, S.C. Fang Professor of Chinese Language and Culture, noted that super-power politics still dominate interpretation of international news.

"There are Muslim independence movements in western China which the Taliban has refused to hand over. A US attack on Afghanistan wins China hegemonic presence in its west," she said. An outpouring of sympathy from the Chinese for the American people went hand in hand with awareness that the US attack would advance and express its own hegemony by attacking Afghanistan.

Commenting on US media as propaganda, Stephen Alter, writer-in-residence in the Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies, expressed concern for the US media characterization of Afghanistan as a a "no-man's-land, decimated by drought and famine. This makes military attacks seem necessary. Remember, there are farms and schools and teachers and children living there," he said.

Peter S. Donaldson, professor of literature and head of the Literature Section, mixed gratitude for the Internet and for literary texts. He described a 'widening circle of e-mails including family and friends" who expressed concern for Donaldson's son, a New Yorker, and exchanged poems with one another.

"I was surprised. They were poems like Yeats's 'The Second Coming' -- poems about apolcalypse -- and speeches from King Lear, a blind man talking to a man who has ruined his nation. We found these consoling," he said. Donaldson read aloud "Try to Praise the Mutilated World," a poem from The New Yorker.

Mike Best, a research scientist at the Media Lab, discussed innovations in deploying "empowering grassrooots media technology. In the spirit of MIT, the problem-solver, we can use technology in new ways."

Political and social conflicts, not negotiable by ordinary media including law or diplomacy, had yielded in some cases to a process known as "e-peace," he said.

Examples of "e-peace" in progress include an Internet connection, hosted by the Media Lab, between Greek and Turkish Cypriots (there is no land line to connect them); a photo lab and library in Bangladesh and a program for lower-caste adolescents to use digital photography as a journalistic tool in their communities.

The teach-in program began with video footage by CMS graduate student Robin Hauck of the MIT community memorial in Lobby 10, which invites passersby to record their thoughts on the tragedy. Teach-in participants also included David Thorburn, professor of literature and director of MIT Communications Forum, who gave opening comments; John Hildebidle, professor of literature, who read a poem by a former MIT student, and Daniel Huecker, a graduate student, who introduced a website created by the CMS graduate students and its goals and contributions.

The MIT teach-in series is sponsored by the MIT Center for International Studies in cooperation with the Political Science Department, Boston Review, Foreign Languages and Literatures Section, Science, Technology and Society Program, Comparative Media Studies Program, Economics Department, and the Dean's Office, School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences.


Topics: Special events and guest speakers, September 11

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