The term “globalization” and related terms such as global system, global economy, and global culture have been used since the mid-1980s in both the popular and academic literature to describe the “temporal-spatial compression” of the physical world (Harvey 1989). New information and (tele)communication technologies (ICTs) are viewed as linking distant localities into one globalizing world in a synchronous time zone that goes beyond real territories. The speed and mobility generated by electronic networks becomes indispensable for creating the physical conditions of globalization, tying together the world as a whole (Virilio 1997).
Popular futurists have optimistically characterized a globalizing or united world: Fukuyama (1992) depicts globalization as the last triumph of capitalism and its market economy; Friedman (2006) writes of a flattening and fiber-optic global world; while Gates (1999) refers to friction-free capitalism that creates new opportunities for all countries to participate in global competition. Meanwhile, critical scholars see globalization as the result of the industrialized countries’ and multinationals’ imperialist expansion without colonies (Magdoff 2003). In this view, advanced technologies offer support for absorbing the surplus generated in the so-called “third world,” thus undermining its technological, political, economic, and cultural viability. In the mid-nineteenth century, Marx predicted a global move toward unconstrained capitalist expansion, arguing that “all that is solid melts into air” in the face of the bourgeoisie’s constant expansion of markets across the surface of the globe (Marx & Engels 1848/1998, 38). In contrast to the optimistic scholars, for the more pessimistic scholars, technology is subordinate to the expansionist economic logic of contemporary capitalism, which penetrates into every corner of human life.
Multidimensional Global Spheres
Criticism of these optimistic and pessimistic forms of economic reductionism, both of which tend to focus on a shift toward a united world economy, arises from the observation that globalization should not be understood as a dynamic that fosters a unified borderless world. This claim gives rise to a “loose structure” thesis, which emphasizes the relative independence of socio-cultural factors when the local is confronted by globalizing forces. From this perspective it is argued that there are fundamental disjunctures between the economy, culture, and politics. As Appadurai (1990) suggests, a globalizing world mediated by ICTs produces a global sphere of “technoscapes,” or multiple spheres consisting of the flows of people, technology, money, media content, and ideologies. Sreberny (2005) similarly sees the technology and market logics as components of multidimensional spheres of the global. These analytical categories of mini-globalizing processes have helped to create an awareness of the nonlinear, unpredictable nature of cultural globalization in contrast to the uniformity envisaged by those more concerned with economic globalization. Empirical studies, for instance, have focused on the independent consumption patterns of television audiences that are understood as being strongly affected by cultural proximity created by factors such as local culture, language differences, local market strengths, and other cultural variables (Straubhaar 1991).
These approaches reveal globalization as a web of hybridity or complexity that gives rise to uneven, asymmetric, and unpredictable links in the global–local nexus, suggesting that this nexus is central to the present phase of globalization. They negate perspectives that give rise to what are regarded as unhelpful dualistic and hierarchical framings of the world in terms of the dominant and dominated, colonizer and colonized, and center/ periphery relationships. For instance, Urry (2005) divides the global system into global networks and global fluids. Whereas global networks are predictable, calculable, routinized, integrated, and standardized (as in global enterprises), global fluids are regarded as being autopoietic, rhizomatic, and decentralized (as in world money, auto-mobility, social movements, the Internet, anti-globalization movements, and international terrorism). It is the latter that is said to account for global complexity and hybridity. In view of the out-of-control and unpredictable state of global flows, Giddens (2003) describes the present condition of globalization as a “runaway world.”
Castells’ (1996) concept of flows is helpful in understanding patterns of global interconnectedness as a space that is increasingly process oriented and fluid, unlike the earlier place-adhesive understanding of space as something fixed. The space of flows is said to be a more significant factor in economic, political, and symbolic life than the “space of places.” The fluid and liquid space of flows is enabled by the global conduit of electronic networks, which include transcontinental networks such as submarine cables, ship-to-shore wireless networks, broadcast radio and shortwave wireless services, conventional telecommunication networks, and worldwide Internet-enabled business networks. Castells’ perspective considers the complex and liquid flows of technology, information, and culture across borders. In a similar way, Held et al. (1999) highlight the transformative potential of these spatio-temporal attributes, and it is argued that new complex hierarchies are being reconfigured within a new geography of centrality and marginality, which is bounded not so much by national boundaries as by virtual and geometric representations of power (Sassen 2005).
The Homogenizing Worldview
In contrast to those who favor an unbundling of the global multiplicities of different flows and who argue that globalization cannot be understood using a single world-system model, political economists of media and communication suggest that modern technology and the interests of those active in global markets lead to a continuous tendency to integrate the frontiers of the local into a homogenized globalizing world. For these scholars, a deepening crisis of capital accumulation during the period of the recession in the early 1970s was accompanied by a revolution in microelectronics and computer technologies, creating a foundation for capitalist expansion worldwide. As a result of the expansion of global networks and enhanced computing power, since the 1980s the multinational corporations have sought to tie their local subsidiaries, agencies, and overseas factories together. In this sense, the global electronic telecommunication network is said to become the material infrastructure of contemporary global capitalism, allowing the products of immaterial labor to be disseminated throughout the world. Terms such as cybernetic capitalism (Robins & Webster 1999), digital capitalism (Schiller 1999), electronic empire (Hardt & Negri 2000), and fast capitalism (Agger 2004) denote the deepening reliance on the virtual dynamics of a global capitalism shaped by technological innovation. These terms suggest a stage of globalization in which the flows of capital, labor, commodities, information, and images achieve a global reach, and in which they can be produced and consumed almost instantaneously.
Scholars working in the political economy tradition view global crises of capitalism as emerging as a result of the microelectronic revolution and networked flows of information, communication, and culture, and as a result of the flows of industrial and financial capital. Research in this tradition has been centrally concerned with the contribution of digital information and communication to the operation of global monopolies and with trans border data flows (Herman & McChesney 1997). Other key research themes that inform studies of global technocapitalism include work on the way in which the international activities of transnational media and communication firms evade regulatory barriers to a greater extent than the activities of firms in traditional manufacturing sectors; the dynamics of monopolistic global media systems; cross-border flows of media outputs; and the restructuring of global electronic communication networks.
In this tradition, globalization is associated with technological regimes that signify rapid changes in spatial structures. The process of spatial rezoning is said to stratify and concentrate the power of capitalism over physical and virtual geographies. It creates a domain of symbolic re-territorialization and de-territorialization for increasingly complex flows of information and capital through electronic networks. The virtual global space is regarded as an expanding source of capitalist power augmented by a fabric of electronic networks that enables flows of intellectual assets embodied in financial capital, electronic business data, and entertainment content on a planetary scale. From this vantage point, contemporary capitalism is seen as reshuffling local geographies so as to facilitate the national and global expansion of capital by increasing and channeling the mobility of people, money, goods, and information.
In summary, early globalization theses envisaged globalizing forces as giving rise to unifying hierarchical structures. Later theses, associated with scholars who focus on hybridity and complexity in globalization, suggest the unpredictability of globalization and the multiplicity of local contexts that may be free from the domination of global capital. Others argue, however, that signs of hybridity and complexity should be regarded as indications of global capital’s ability to absorb local differences, and that media and communication networks play a central role in this process. The differences between more recent contributions to debates about the consequences of globalization turn on whether the global–local nexus is regarded as an intricate web structure and on whether globalizing forces are seen as having the capacities to absorb differences at the local level.
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