The Existing Alternatives in Communications

By Williams, Raymond | Monthly Review, July/August 2013 | Go to article overview

The Existing Alternatives in Communications


Williams, Raymond, Monthly Review


I. Communications Systems

It matters greatly where you start, in thinking about communications. You may start, for instance, in a mood of excitement and even congratulation that at the present stage of civilization there is a communications system incomparably more vast and efficient than could ever have been imagined: that the voice of radio, the face of television, goes into millions of homes, and that we have the most widely distributed press in the world. You can feel this excitement even if you recognize certain little local difficulties such as a cigarette advertisement appearing just before Robin Hood, or a particularly shocking series in one of the Sunday papers, or even the overnight death of the News Chronicle.

On the other hand, you may be starting from the feeling that never in the history of the world has there been so much production of bad culture. Never, it is true, has there been so much production of any kind, but the percentage of this production which is bad is now appalling. After you have surveyed this magnificent communications machine, after you have heard the voice that goes into all the homes, you may ask, after all, what the voice is saying. And you can take this attitude very far. You can even be thrown back on one of those perennial springs of English reform, that shout which has sounded so often through the villas of England, to call right-thinking men to action, "the people are at it again." What the people are at now, according to this point of view, is a sort of dangerous self-indulgence which is spoken about morally in much the same tones as drink, dancing, stage plays, and so on, were spoken about in the past. Many people, good people, have this image of a depraved, or largely depraved, population, whom they call the masses. The people are not profiting by the gleaming machine of communication, but are being reduced to what is usually called a near-moronic mass.

My own starting point is distinct from either of these attitudes. In my view you cannot understand the communications system unless you look at it historically, and this as yet we have not really enough evidence for. Very few people have been working on it. It is still not studied in any British university. This is probably the only country with a major communications system which has no organized research in relation to it, and because of this, such history of the communications system as exists is mostly bad history, bad history which hides from us the factors which could lead to an understanding of the contemporary situation.

The extension of communications, as I see it, was inseparable from the extension of democracy and the whole process that we call the Industrial Revolution. You cannot, historically, separate any of those movements out from the other two. And I would like to reaffirm my own position that each of these movements is something one must really support, without any reservations of spirit. This might seem a commonplace, but I know that I had to work through ten or fifteen years of familiar English thinking before I could really say that this enormous process, which has transformed and is transforming our society and our world, is a thing one wants. Yet to see it in only that way is, of course, to see it too simply. There have been contradictions within various stages of this process, and at the moment we are faced with a particularly severe one.

A Market System

Broadly speaking, our communications system grew up as part of a market society. At a certain point it passed from this simple liberalism, which most people still attribute to it, to a quite different system which has been establishing itself over the last sixty years and yet which, somehow, we are all still reluctant to recognize. In the early stages of a market society a liberal theory of communication is sensible and admirable, because the theories it is challenging, the theories it is replacing, are so bad. A simple market liberalism is then replacing a system of the monopoly of communication by some ruling group, either a ruling group which is determined to maintain its own power by controlling communications, or a ruling group which has paternal intentions towards its people and believes that its own standards are the absolute standards of civilization. …

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