The history of global information networks: some notes

Jan Blommaert 

Just a few notes, triggered by the amazingly informative book by Donald Read, The Power of News: The History of Reuters (Oxford University Press 1992).

First, observe the continuity of old structures and infrastructures of globalized information distribution. The following map (Read, p68-69) shows the telegraph sea cable infrastructure in the 1880s.

map of telegraph cables, 1880s Read 1992 The Power of News 68 69 Oxford UP

Now look at the map of Internet sea cables in 2012.

SeaCableHi (1)

With the exception of the cable infrastructure in the Pacific area, the map shows nearly identical patterns. Telegraph cables in the Pacific were built in 1902-03, and from that moment onwards the global infrastructure for information distribution acquires its present pattern.

Second: the issue of volume and density. Reuters was the market leader of its time in the field of news and information distribution, and the company consistently used  (and sometimes created) the most advanced technologies. Yet, the volume of actual words was restricted by factors such as cost-per-sign and the clumsiness of morse code for communicating larger texts. Reuters used a code system by means of which longer phrases could be condensed to one or a handful of words, to be “translated” by Reuters agents at the receiving end of the telegraph line. In 1914, the volumes of words per month sent worldwide was as follows (Read, p.71).

map of density of Reuters traffic 1914 Read 1992 The Power of News 68 69 Oxford UP

Important stations such as Bombay and Cape Town received a monthly volume of 10,000-12,500 words of “news” (a Bulletin), possibly complemented by a 9,000 word volume of dispatches. This is the volume of two academic papers per month. Less important stations had to rely on a lot less – from a few hundreds of words to a few thousands.

Evidently, this volume (for which receivers paid handsome amounts of subscription money) has been blown away by contemporary social media – this is trivial. Just consider the volumes of daily traffic of just one of the various social media currently available, Twitter.

ScreenHunter_67 Apr. 29 11.23

More interesting is to see that the same center-periphery models that were already present over a century ago are simply replicated in the here-and-now. We have seen how the Internet sea cabling patterns mirror those in place by the end of the 19th century. The global Internet traffic map of 2010 confirms this:


And we can see similar patterns of center and periphery when we look at a map showing us the year in which parts of the globe started using Twitter. I take this map from an interesting source.

figure18 when join Twitter center periphery

The parts of the world that were connected by telegraph cable in the late 19th century join Twitter earlier than the more peripheral parts.

So while speed, volume and density of information distribution have definitely increased during the Internet revolution, these differences are grafted upon old structures and infrastructures, about a century old.


For whom the bell tolls. On what used to be the EU

ScreenHunter_31 Mar. 09 12.38

Jan Blommaert 

Yet another referendum in an EU member state – half serious, half bogus – and yet another shattering defeat for the EU: the Dutch electorate rejected the ratification of the EU-Ukraine treaty with about 65% of the vote yesterday. A prominent Belgian analyst (and inveterate EU-fan) commented that the EU’s big problem, increasingly, is the failure of its national leaders to communicate EU plans and actions properly to their publics, leaving the field of EU-analysis to “right-wing populists” such as Wilders. The suggestion, of course, is that if such national leaders would communicate more delicately, the EU would receive the full support of its citizens.

I don’t think so, for several reasons. One, the Dutch referendum is just the last of a sequence of referenda, about two decades old now, in which any EU-proposal, treaty or action has been rejected by the electorate. Remember the débâcle of the proposed EU Constitution in 2005, flatly and humiliatingly rejected by the voters in EU core countries such as France and The Netherlands (causing Ireland to postpone its planned referendum indefinitely) and narrowly approved in Luxemburg and Spain. Countries where the Constitution was ratified – 18 out of 25, eventually – had avoided referenda and used the subsidiarity automatisms of parliamentary rubberstamp, often in the face of nasty mass protests. The failure to have the Constitution ratified is perhaps the gravest defeat suffered by the EU (imagine it happening at the national level!), so those who attempt to present yesterday’s Dutch referendum defeat as a one-off and a not-so-serious setback suffer from selective amnesia.

Two, those who reject the current political line of the EU are no longer just “right-wing populists”. In fact, I suppose a good number of Dutch voters rejecting the Ukraine treaty may have done so because they didn’t fancy a narrow political and economic alliance with the right-wing populists in Kyiv; just as many people who oppose the EU’s current refugee dealings with Erdogan’s Turkey do so because they favor a migration policy less inspired, and implemented, by right-wing populists. The fact is that much of what is currently labeled as “Euro-scepsis” is not driven by right-wing populism but by a rejection of the right-wing neoliberalism of which the EU has become an incarnation. It should perhaps be renamed as “Euro-criticism” so as to differentiate it from the UKIP-style xenophobic EU-bashing, for it has very little in common with it, other than a profoundly critical stance towards the EU in its present state. And in several places, this EU-criticism has already won elections, so some more accurate analysis would be most welcome.

Three, those who believe that the EU’s poor record qua popular support is due to clumsy communication of national leaders should explain both previous points. For two decades of intense impopularity, and a shift from right-wing rejection to a much broader and varied range of EU-critical arguments now carrying very large groups of the EU-citizenry would hardly point to a poorly informed EU-population continuously misled by stupid or ill-intending politicians about the noble intentions and elevated statesmanship of the EU. This is what we would call a weak hypothesis.

A stronger one is precisely the opposite: that the continued, broadening and diversifying rejection of the EU and what it stands for is an effect of a better informed public, a public that does not “misunderstand” what the EU means, but disagrees with it on fairly well developed grounds.

Citizens may have followed, for instance, with growing disgust, how the EU handled three different “crises” in 2015 – its annus horribilis. In the Greek budget crisis, the EU imposed a barely disguised right-wing ideological agenda on a left-wing elected government, put the democratic institutions of a member state on hold and redefined the classic foundations of democratic rule. All of this in blatant contravention of its own Charter, and all of it directed by the interests of “the markets”. People have seen that, and they don’t like that.

In the “refugee crisis”, the EU squandered its so-called “core values” of personal freedom, civil liberties and human rights in a shameful competitive display of national xenophobic-chauvinism, militarization and organizational incompetence (willful incompetence to some). Quarreling member states, war ships in the Mediterranean, dead bodies on its beaches, barbed-wire fences in the Balkans, refugees being beaten up by riot police in Hungary, deported by Turkey  and living in squalid refugee camps in Calais: those are the lasting memories of how the EU dealt with this crisis. And millions of its citizens disagreed to the point of civil disobedience, putting, effectively, an alternative grassroots policy of support and advocacy for refugees in place. Many EU citizens did not like the EU response to the “refugee crisis”, and not because this response was poorly communicated.

In the “terror crisis”, finally, the EU again showed its disregard for the Great Liberal Values it so often invokes as the core part of its self-imagination. The attacks in Paris led to the further implementation of what begins to look like a Patriot Act society, with mass surveillance and over-policing, the closing of national borders (terminating, in effect, the Schengen-system), and knee-jerk anti-Muslim stigmatization often escalating in brutal racism were the realities for which loud political invocations of “Our Values” were the soundtrack. France – the country of Montesquieu, Rousseau and Diderot, remember – declared that it would consider itself temporarily free to violate the European Convention on Human Rights in its hunt for real or suspected terrorists, and elsewhere in the EU, governments flatly announced that privacy and civil liberties would have to be made subordinate to security concerns. The Patriot Act society – a paradise for law-and-order hawks – with its already spectacularly upscaled security apparatus did not, however, prevent the attacks in Brussels, and its efficiency is thus no longer just theoretically questionable. This, once more, was noticed and rather well understood by citizens. And this, too, they disliked.

Add to these three crisis a fourth one, the economic crisis and the EU’s response, the austerity doctrine, which for nearly 8 years now has not proven its macro-economic effectiveness. It has proven its ideological effectiveness though, by lowering the standards of labor across the Union, causing mass impoverishment for large groups of the population, stimulating fiscal and social competition between member states, dismantling what is left of the welfare state across the Union, and moving towards “small government” and “balanced budgets” when big government and deficit spending might manifestly be preferable. Certainly when events such as the release of the Panama Papers show, once more, that this crisis does not seem to hurt a tiny financial upperclass (quite the contrary in fact), people might become angry. And not because they have “misunderstood” the logic of the EU – precisely because they are beginning to understand it very well.

These “crises” and the EU response to them are causing a growing rift between the Really Existing EU and its citizens. And Varoufakis, Corbyn and Iglesias are “Euro-critical” because of these issues, not because of those that animate the likes of Farage and Wilders. Growing numbers of people reject an EU increasingly seen as a neoliberal, right-wing, pseudo-legal, xenophobic and antidemocratic free trade zone, in which a widening divide between a small privileged minority and a suffering majority has become official strategy. Growing numbers of people detest the fact that the Great Values that are supposed to be its foundations are continuously ridiculed and betrayed by the EU.

They realize, in short, that the EU as an inspiring, utopian political project is dead – a project of democratic capitalism in which human rights and personal freedom would be maximized, and in which the fruits of a global economic and fiscal prominence would be shared by all. It is unclear what exactly has replaced it; but it is clear that growing numbers – very large number – of EU-citizens dislike it.

Don’t tell me that more carefully communicating national politicians will solve this problem of legitimacy. That would be poor communication.