Cultural diffusion of news: New blood in the American News Media

Rather than shunning it, the United States should welcome Al Jazeera to its local media.

Former US vice president Al Gore sold his cable TV channel Current TV to Al Jazeera, drawing some controversy [Getty]

“Cultural diffusion” is one of the well-tested and uncontroversial ideas in the field of anthropology, first outlined by Alfred Kroeber in the 1940s to understand the spread of ideas, practices, styles, religions, technologies and languages between and within individuals and groups.

Diffusion across cultures accounts for the spread of agriculture, industrialisation and most recently information technologies. In one of my earlier books, I have called it “human technogenesis” – the technology diffusion through the micro-processes of person-to-person interaction and person-to-computer interaction, or the epigenetic mechanism which changes human development and social and cultural formations from the cellular level to cybernetics.

Today, a microchip can be implanted deep inside the human brain to enhance intercellular communication. While we are still devising faster means of communication connecting different parts of the world, we are inheritors of a dream of a “global village”, enunciated by Marshall McLuhan, the seer of the information age.

Reading Claude Levi-Strauss many years ago, who described the latest wave of modernity sweeping the globe – which in the long span of human history will seem like a flash of lighting or a quickening interconnecting the entire world – I realised why the deep structure of human mind resists rapid change. Yet, incremental or gradual change is also a constant, Levi-Strauss taught us. 

There is now evidence from brain studies suggesting specific traits in one’s political orientation may be correlated with deep neuroanatomical structures, such that, “liberals tend to be better at managing conflicting information, while conservatives are thought to be better at recognising threats”.

Al Jazeera launches US channel

It was Thomas Kuhn, the historian of science, who said paradigmatic change invariably comes from outside the system. But the historians of technology, such as Freeman Dyson, have argued that change can be random, when for instance a “progressive technology” tends to “disrupt” the existing ways of doing business. Both mechanisms may be operating in a massive, large scale change, like the one brought on by social media, disrupting traditional ways of disseminating news and information.

Clearly, our conventional theories about the world have been “blown to bits”, especially, when we consider that “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” – including our notions of privacy and identity – have been exploded by the digital revolution in the post-9/11 world, as suggested by a group of MIT and Harvard engineers (Abelson, Ledeen and Lewis).

So when I learned that Al Jazeera was buying Current TV for an estimated half-a-billion dollars, I could anticipate the jokes that would flood the blogosphere from the declining revenues of print and TV media outlets – “The inventor of the Internet, Al Gore, sells his soul to Al Jazeera”; “The prophet of Green Energy goes for Greenbacks”; or, as Current TV host Joy Behar said, “Al Gore, Al Pacino, Al Jazeera. It’s all the same thing to me.”

But in the age of globalization and dislocation, doesn’t the oldest democracy in the world stand to gain from greater international coverage? Certainly, the mainstream US media does not have the time, resources or the predilection to fully cover international news, let alone try to monopolise the market. 

Even the fast-talking broadcasters like Chris Mathews and Sean Hannity, who clearly have the “gift of gab”, do not talk fast enough to keep up with the changing realities of the world. If you listened to the beltway pundits long enough, you might think you’re living in the Kennedy era or during the Reagan revolution, respectively (two American presidents I also admire greatly). 

The spring in the pivot

While the springs of democracy have broken out all over the Arab world and North Africa, the US and most of the developed world is rapidly trying to adjust to the rise of Asian economies. As I have argued in my recent book, Barack Obama in Hawaii and Indonesia, Obama swept into office partly as a function of the changing demographics in the US and partly due to the global geopolitics. Describing a social reality is just as important as predicting an election.

Obama’s global biography has resonated to the challenges Americans are facing around the world, which partly may have accounted for his re-election. The state department has enunciated a pivot towards the Asia-Pacific region.

The Congressional Research Office has stated [PDF]:

In the fall of 2011, the Obama Administration issued a series of announcements indicating that the United States would be expanding and intensifying its already significant role in the Asia-Pacific, particularly in the southern part of the region. The fundamental goal underpinning the shift is to devote more effort to influencing the development of the Asia-Pacific’s norms and rules, particularly as China emerges as an ever-more influential regional power. Given that one purpose of the “pivot” or “rebalancing” toward the Asia-Pacific is to deepen US credibility in the region at a time of fiscal constraint, Congress’s oversight and appropriations roles, as well as its approval authority over free trade agreements, will help determine to what extent the Administration’s plans are implemented and how various trade-offs are managed.

Al Jazeera in North America seems well suited to cover these global transformations as we push forward into the 21st century and as China embraces democratic reforms. The more access to information the better, isn’t this what tech-revolution was all about?

Ai Weiwei’s Never Sorry

Recently, at Asia Society at the preview of Ai Weiwei’s Never Sorry, a film directed by Alison Klayman, I witnessed the challenges “free speech” faces in rapidly modernising China.

Ai Weiwei has emerged as China’s most famous international artist and dissident. He is perhaps “China’s most outspoken domestic critic”. Ai organises communities through art and social media, while trying to bypass strict censorship and an antiquated legal system.

The film shows in compelling details, how “the Chinese authorities have shut down his blog, beat him up, bulldozed his newly built studio, and held him in secret detention”.

The film represents the life of a dissident in the digital age, someone who has inspired global publics in art and politics, a story Al Jazeera English has been covering regularly. First-time director Klayman filmed Ai while working as a journalist in China; she met his family, friends, followers and detractors. Her cinematic biography provides “a nuanced exploration of contemporary China and one of its most compelling public figures”.

During the Q&A session at Asia Society in New York, Klayman described how as a fresh college graduate she moved to China, took a job as a reporter, and started to film Ai in his studio, not thinking it might potentially lead to a short-list for Oscar-nominated documentary film. 

The segments of the film where the film-maker explores Ai’s years in New York City (1981-93), where he learned and perfected his craft before moving to China to start a dissident revolution, reminded me of an exhibit of young up-and-coming South Asian artists who are similarly busy perfecting their strategy.   

South Asian “fission”

As seen in the recent Indian rape case of a 23-year old woman in Delhi and the anti-corruption movement started by Anna Hazare earlier, daily unrest in the name of democracy seems to be a permanent condition in India, whereas in other regions in South Asia, complacency and war has led to ruins.

Shifts in the balance of power are inevitable, with individualism and consumption reaching newer heights, as America pivots towards the Asia-Pacific region. Thus, traditional media’s generic narrative about newly emerging economies is no longer plausible as fact. This is where news networks, such as Al Jazeera, may play critical roles.

New patterns of social dynamism and unrest seem to be emerging at a rapid pace, partly to due to technology, impacting human nature as well as social policy. “Cultural practitioners yearn to reflect this multiplicity of voices,” suggests the artist and curator Nitin Mukul in a thought-provoking exhibit “Fact Fission”, at Aicon Gallery in the Village till January 19.

He suggests that “cultural fusion” – often used to describe the melding of different cultures – seems redundant, a mainstreaming of “assimilation or multiculturalism, fusion advocate’s tolerance of the ‘other’, albeit according to its own convenience and within the bounds of what it deems tasteful”.

What’s more interesting, they say, is “fission – when things split apart, reorganize and regenerate, smudging and splintering neatly kept categories and conventional wisdom in the process”. They must be reorganised and regenerated sometimes around hard structures or ideas.

The results are often “new inauthentic, hyper-local and interdisciplinary manifestations resulting from willful or imposed dislocation”. The works in this exhibition focus on such disruptive fissions borne of migration, splintering and ambiguity, featuring Eric Ayotte, Sarnath Banerjee, Ruby Chishti, Jace Clayton (aka DJ Rupture), James Cullinane, Gisela Insuaste, Mala Iqbal, John Jurayj, Abir Karmakar, Pooneh Maghazehe, Seher Naveed, Yamini Nayar, and Kanishka Raja. The exhibition shows range and depth of emerging new artists, who deal with very tough issues for which we do not possess ready-made categories.

While fission may be the human condition in South Asia and in many diaspora communities, cultural diffusion of skills and knowledge has kept humans competitive over the longer haul. This may be the adaptive glue that drives evolution out of stasis, alienation and dystopia. 

Likewise, contemporary “news diffusion theories” replicate the tools and networks humans use to stay ahead of the curve, seeking an edge over themselves and others, where according to Pepe Escobar of Asia Times, “nations, mercenary peoples, terrorists, democracies, dictatorships, tribes, nomad mafias and religions outfits fight for wealth, faith, land and liberty.”

Thus, the introduction of Al Jazeera into American homes can only offer a competitive advantage in a highly networked world that is fractured yet very fluid. The biggest challenge Al Jazeera will face, according to Tony Burman, a former head at CBC and Al Jazeera English, is how to package international news with a “Made in America” seal of approval.     

Dinesh Sharma is the author of Barack Obama in Hawaii and Indonesia: The Making of a Global President, which was rated as a Top 10 Black history book for 2012. His next book on President Obama, Crossroads of Leadership: Globalization and American Exceptionalism in the Obama Presidency, is due to be published with Routledge Press.