Cultural theory, communication and the power of new media
Those seeking change will keep on looking for the quality of information they need until they find it. What Frantz Fanon has to teach about the power of new media.
Technology in transition
During the COVID-19 lockdown everyone I know was using their webcam to meet via video-conference. Or not.
Many had poor Internet access, and others wanted to resist yet another attempt to steal their privacy. For some the pandemic opened a new era of ‘working from home’ and made video conferencing normal. For others, the jump to Zoom, Teams and the like just widened the gap between tech insiders and outsiders.
This situation of rapid change got me thinking about the complex ways in which adoption of new technology impacts society.
The drive to do so much more online in 2020 is having very significant impacts in the longer term — both for the participants and for those excluded. We’ve crossed a transition point, where technological adoption is accelerating beyond our collective capacity to grasp the implications.
Such transitions have happened many times before, and one of the more recent shifts took place in the early 2010s. There has been plenty of interest in the role of social media in that series of revolutions known as the Arab Spring (2010–2012). It was a time when reformist values seemed to travel extremely rapidly via the mobile phones that had become ubiquitous in the Middle East, and everywhere else. But the focus on the role of media in times of rapid social change goes back a long way. In the Arab world, the Algerian War of the 1950s was a key period for understanding the ways the media influence the course of history.
Radio and Independence
A key text is Frantz Fanon’s essay, This is the Voice of Algeria. Fanon wrote about the changing understanding of radio in colonial Algeria during the 1950s.
At first the indigenous Algerian population saw the radio as a foreign entity, destructive of traditional family relationships. Back in France, the image of a family gathering around the wireless set at night was a cosy, socially reinforcing one. But in Algeria it was widely seen as socially suspect, because it threatened to mix genders and ages in non-traditional ways. To overcome this the French colonial broadcaster identified certain radio programmes as particularly suitable for family listening.
This strategy did not work.
In the population at large radios were neither bought nor listened to. Meanwhile the radio diffused news of unrest to the colonial farmers. For them, the radio was a voice of security and normality, “the only way to still feel like a civilized man”. It was a bulwark, Fanon claims, against ‘going native’.
Ironically, the European farmers would hear the news then gather their workers to celebrate victories against an insurgency of which the workers, being without radios themselves, would otherwise have known nothing.
Fanon’s argument is that the classic sociological rationale for a lack of radio listening among Algerians was ‘a mass of errors’. The standard line was that “Traditions of respectability are so important for us and are so hierarchical, that it is practically impossible for us to listen to radio programs in the family”. Fanon’s gloss on this is:
“Here, then, at a certain explicit level, is the apprehension of a fact: receiving sets are not readily adopted by Algerian society. By and large, it refuses this technique which threatens its stability and the traditional types of sociability; the reason invoked being that the programs in Algeria, undifferentiated because they are copied from the Western model, are not adapted to the strict, almost feudal type of patrilineal hierarchy, with its many moral taboos, that characterizes the Algerian family.”
So what changed?
Fanon claims this argument about family traditions is bogus. The evidence? As soon as a nationalist radio station appeared, it was so popular that all the radios sold out in a matter of weeks and batteries for them were almost unobtainable. If this was really a matter of traditional family values, how could these values have been abandoned so comprehensively in the space of a month or two?
Only with the start of nationalist radio broadcasts did the radio become a tool of decolonization. The French authorities strongly objected to the German supply of radios from the Telefunk company. The Germans ignored the French. So the French colonial powers jammed the unauthorised broadcasts, whereupon, according to Fanon, families would actively listen to the static and imagine the news of nationalist victories that were surely what the French were trying to suppress.
“He had to enter the vast network of news; he had to find his way in a world in which things happened, in which events existed, in which forces were active. Through the experience of a war waged by his own people, the Algerian came in contact with an active community. The Algerian found himself having to oppose the enemy news with his own news.”
One interpretation of this version of history is that the real hierarchical distinction the radio emphasized was not between traditional family relations such as man and woman, father and child. There was, to be sure, Fanon pointed out, hierarchy in Algerian society, but it was first and foremost between colonizers and colonized, between the oppressor and the oppressed. This dominant hierarchical relationship was actually what the new technology foregrounded and made even more problematic.
Another interpretation of this situation might be that technology finds its own uses, as the saying goes. At first the Algerian nationalists had no need of the radio if all it could tell them was the French were in charge. They were already painfully aware of that information.
It took a while for the Algerian nationalists to realise that radio, previously the voice of the oppressor, could instead become the voice of the independence movement. Or perhaps they always recognised this but it took time to organise the resources to start broadcasting for themselves. Either way, the technology had to be re-imagined and then re-purposed in order for it to be adopted by the mass of the population for their own ends.
“With the creation of a Voice of Fighting Algeria, the Algerian was vitally committed to listening to the message, to assimilating it, and soon to acting upon it. Buying a radio, getting down on one’s knees with one’s head against the speaker, was no longer just wanting to get the news concerning the formidable experience in progress in the country, it was hearing the first words of the nation.”
Information environments: quantity or quality?
An interesting spin on this discussion comes from research investigating the much more recent uses of electronic communications in regime change during the revolutionary period known as the Arab Spring (Benkirane, 2012; Howard and Hussain, 2013).
Researchers calculated that there is a play-off between the sheer amount of information available to the population on the one hand, and its quality on the other.
A larger amount of information supports the status quo — it may well be propaganda. After all, the Nazis successfully subsidised the mass distribution of radios in the 1930s in order to promote their message. But, conversely, higher quality information supports change — telling it like it is, warts and all. It really is quality — not quantity — that matters.
This typology of information results in four ideal-type information environments. The high quantity — low quality environment benefits a repressive regime. Plenty of information is available, but it’s mostly propaganda. A high quantity, high quality information environment promotes moves for change because it becomes easy to see that the regime isn’t working.
In the light of this scheme what are we to make of Fanon’s interpretation of radio-listening?
The farmers without radios were in an environment of low information, and low quality. They knew almost nothing of what the radio was telling them and if they did listen in, it didn’t tell them anything they recognized as worth knowing. They had to resort to other media for their news.
In contrast, the Algerian family sitting around the radio listening to the static of the jamming signal were in an environment of low quantity, but curiously high quality. The jammed signal told them almost nothing, but what it did tell them was the most important thing of all: that there existed somewhere out there a signal that the colonists needed to jam. All the other details were filled in by the listeners’ imaginations.
This was not the only impact of radio on the progress of Algerian independence. In 1961, towards the end of the Algerian War, a group of hardline French nationalists took over the main centres of Algeria and attempted a coup inside France against President De Gaulle. They opposed the President because he had already established that by now the majority of both the French and Algerian populations wanted Algerian independence.
Unluckily for the plotters, the transistor radio had recently been invented and mass produced. Now the French all had portable radios. As a result, De Gaulle’s desperate and determined broadcast to the nation was heard by many, many people. This was to some extent an accident, since de Gaulle actually appeared on television, although TV sets were not yet widely distributed. In particular, army conscripts who were not part of the coup heard it on their new portable radios. This was determinative for what became known as ‘the battle of the transistors’.
The coup ultimately failed, because the radio enabled De Gaulle to connect directly with soldiers of all ranks and with the wider French population. He didn’t need to say much for his message to be understood. It was low-quantity, but extremely high quality.
The President’s key message comes in the final three seconds of a historic twenty-minute speech:
Perhaps you will be able to consider these four quadrants of information when you next devise your important message. High and low quantity; high and low quality. If you want things to stay the same, your best strategy is to flood the channels with quantity. Sit-coms, soap operas, adverts, shock-jock phone-ins. It’s all endlessly the same and this is its essential value. There is only one real message in this mass of repetitive material: things are the same today as they were yesterday. And tomorrow the same power-holders will be gripping it even more tightly.
Remember, though, that those seeking change will keep on looking for the quality of information they need until they find it.
Thanks for reading to the end. If you found this interesting (or interestingly annoying) , there’s plenty more at the Four Cultures website. You’re welcome.
Baucom, Ian. 2001. “Frantz Fanon’s Radio: Solidarity, Diaspora, and the Tactics of Listening.” Contemporary Literature 42 (1): 15. https://doi.org/10.2307/1209083.
Benkirane, Reda. 2016. “The Alchemy of Revolution: The Role of Social Networks and New Media in the Arab Spring.” GCSP Policy Paper 7, no. 1.
De Gaulle’s broadcast, 23 April 1961.
Fanon, Frantz. 2016. This is the Voice of Algeria. In: Fanon, F. (ed.), A Dying Colonialism, trans. H. Chevalier. New York: Grove Press.
Gibson, Nigel C. 2003. Fanon: The Postcolonial Imagination. Key Contemporary Thinkers. Cambridge, U.K. : Malden, MA: Polity Press in association with Blackwell Pub
Howard, Philip N., and Muzammil M. Hussain. 2013. Democracy’s fourth wave?: digital media and the Arab Spring. Oxford University Press.
Stevens, Anne. 2016. The Government and Politics of France. London: Macmillan Education, Limited. (On the ‘battle of the transistors’ see p.80).
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