Weapons of Mass Communication

Is the potential of communication technologies diametrically opposed to that of warfare technologies? If communication is the sharing of meaning, and shared meaning brings about understanding and empathy, then more communication should mean less war, right?

In an ideal world, perhaps. But in my more cynic moments, I cannot but see a parallel between the way our technologies for war and for communication have developed. In essence, both sets of modern technologies seek to replace direct engagement with engagement from a safe distance.

Tolstoy, in his essay What is religion, of what does its essence consist?, wrote:

The main reason for the terrible cruelty between men today, apart from the absence of religion, is still the refined complexity of life which shields people from the consequences of their actions. However cruel Attila, Genghis Khan and their followers may have been, the act of killing people personally, face to face, must have been unpleasant to them… Nowadays we kill people through such a complex process of communication, and the consequences of our cruelty are so carefully removed and concealed from us, that there is no restraint on the bestiality of the action. The cruelty of some people towards others will continue to increase until it has reached unprecedented dimensions (Tolstoy, A confession and other religious writtings, Penguin 1987, p100).

The reference to the “absence of religion” right at the beginning might be enough for folks in the atheist/agnostic camp to dismiss the rest of the argument. But although Tolstoy actually presents one of the most rational (and subversive) defenses of religion in our times (which I hope to address here at some other point; or better yet, go read his Confession), let’s leave the religious aspect of the comment aside for the moment, and focus on the politics.

For starters, I see some connections to Horkheimer and Adorno’s comments regarding technology and its “blindness to suffering:” we want to be immune from pain–especially the pain of combat–but that doesn’t mean some people want to be rid of war! Because war is in fact necessary to maintain the standards of living of these people, the history of war technologies has been marked by the development of more devastating weaponry which can be deployed with the least inconvenience on our part. Sure, Genghis Khan is quaint, but Depleted Uranium, now that’s progress!

But it is Tolstoy’s remark about killing people through “a complex process of communication” that I find the most interesting. Communication nowadays is indeed complex. One of my critiques of modern communication technologies is that they put more and more layers of mediation between the knower and the known. Soon, we are no longer talking to someone, but about someone. This process allows us to receive and process more information from more varied sources than ever before, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into better communication, the kind that results in more understanding and empathy.

Modern communication technologies allow us to engage the Other from a safe distance, within the security of our own environment, and without the dangers (and commitments) of real contact. We can thus consume and kill what is authentic about the Other through complex processes of communication. In that sense, killing people through communication technologies might not be as violent or sudden as killing people through war technologies, but the question we have to ask is whether these are not two sides of one single coin.

The above arguments can be more easily applied to mass communication technologies. It is too early to tell whether new online communication technologies will have similar effects. Each generation of technologies brings unforeseen forms of appropriation and application. While many of the new communication technologies are emerging out of the same paradigm that is producing new war technologies, the former are easier to re-invent, adapt or appropriate than the latter. That gives me some hope.

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