Deregulation/Globalisation: The Loss of Cultural Diversity?

Towards another "Brave New World"?

Today, we are witnessing the rapid installation of the complex systems that will become the technological and commercial foundations of a "global information infrastructure." This new, interactive communication space will doubtlessly function as a powerful tool in the service of the economy, but it will also be at the centre of radical and far-reaching changes in our societies. From this point of view, the simple admiration of what are merely technical advances, coupled with present-day justifications of a primarily economic nature, threatens to prevail over the higher interests of the cultural life and the social functioning of the peoples of Europe. Among the undeniable responsibilities of public authorities are the protection of essential community functions against possible encroachment and the promotion of the enormous potential of these new technologies for the cultural and social development of all our societies.

Present-Day Monopolistic Trends in the Future Multimedia Market

Observation of the world's financial markets reveals transactions of vital importance in all sectors of the cultural industries. Economic experts already predict a planetary market of several thousand billion dollars by the year 2000. For the first time in human history, the cultural sector which, by its nature, is not preoccupied with the race for raw materials, is promising profit-earning capacities that will exceed those of the traditional material-based industries.

The market is developing exponentially and is marked by cutthroat competition between strategic alliances and mass buyers at the centre of a rapid convergence of three previously separate sectors: audio-visual, computer technology and telecommunications. Currently, a very small number of world-wide corporations are active in this market. They are all impatient to reap profits from their huge investments by setting up the technical, legal and commercial norms best suited to their own involvement in this future world market.

At the same time, in the movement towards the creation of ever more powerful trusts, these same groups manage to take advantage of the discrepancies between national legal frameworks. In the last several years, a handful of giants in the computer and communication world have acquired the status of "global players," dominating the activities of the other, weaker competitors in the market. The absence of international law in this field, coupled with the scale of the necessary financial investment encourages this tendency towards concentration.

In view of the imminent liberalisation and probable homogenisation of this world market, it is impossible not to see that the main objective pursued by these cultural industries is nothing other than the most profitable exploitation of their audio-visual products and future on-line services. The recommendations of the main representatives of the cultural industries of Europe, Japan and the United States at the February 1995 G7 conference, held in Brussels, gave clear warning of this single-minded interest. Alongside the demands for a speed-up in the deregulation of the markets and the conclusion of agreements as to certain technical norms, much concern was also expressed as to the public's confidence in this information society. Without this confidence, according to these recommendations, the extraordinary gains to be won from the information revolution could not be completely realised.

In the context of the multimedia industry's concern about public mistrust, it is worth quoting Gerald Levin, president of one of the world's leading multimedia giants, Time-Warner, who argues that "the consumer has never known what he wanted before the industry made him an offer" (Der Spiegel special, March 1995, p. 31).

Promoted, then, by an essentially economic discourse, the result of this crusade on a world-wide scale will be the undermining of all sorts of social and ethical norms and the rapid evolution towards a new society, already baptised the "information society."

Although no one can yet measure the scope of the impact of new technologies on cultural life and on the functioning of our societies, or predict the physiognomy of this "information society," by making us accept its purely technical logic, the promises associated with this illusory vision already outline its marvelous advantages. These are the creation of tens of millions of new jobs by the year 2000, the availability of an educational tool of tremendous significance, a more democratic society, the prospect of free access to information by anyone and everyone, both as consumers and producers. Also expected is the imminent arrival of a better standard of living for Europe, Japan, the United States and, subsequently, to quote the industry's own recommendations at the G7 Brussels conference, for "the other regions of the world."

The Information Highway Project

The investigation of the means of distribution that will bring about all these advantages reveals a multitude of different techniques, including cable transmission, fibre optics, and satellites. All of these, however, rely on the concept of a high bandwidth, inter-operational global network, generally termed the "information highway."

Constructed by the powerful partners of the telecommunications industries and, in order to obtain a return on the enormous investments required, the infrastructure of this new interactive communication space must serve the same investors, in their capacity as producers and distributors. This will occur through the practically unlimited transmission of information and the exploitation, on a planetary scale, of a multitude of new services, generally classed under the somewhat vague term of "multimedia": tele-working, tele-shopping, e-mail, instant video, access to administrative services, and even electronic voting.

This notion of the information highway, suggesting universal and free access for each and every one of us as consumers, has a pre-requisite: the user must dispose of the adequate cultural capital and the financial means to acquire the technical devices involved and to access the different services offered, which can only be pay-services, and probably expensive ones at that.

It goes without saying that the essential applications foreseen by the technicians of the powerful industrial groups will go far beyond the present-day and often libertarian experiments in the use of the Internet. As a fantastic instrument of free and individualistic exchange in the fields of science and artistic creation, the Internet cannot really be considered as a precursor to the information highway projects, except in the limited sense of its acceptance by a specialised public and in its technical operating modes.

In the face of today's clear trend towards an oligopolistic market, it is necessary to distinguish between the "cyberspace" myth, a vision of a virtual, cosmopolitan and liberal universe, and the industrial project of the "information superhighway," a powerful instrument in the advanced marketing of audio-visual products and other pay services. Contrary to the democratic pretensions in which the information and image industries would have us believe, the "info-cracy" may also have an inherently totalitarian tendency. In the case of their progressive monopolisation, the new technologies may also turn out to be an instrument for the worst of totalitarianisms, that of a "brave new world" in which everyone will be content, well-informed about all he or she should know in order to play a useful role, but ignorant of the rest, which need not be known, and amused permanently, even to satiety.

Before leaving the field of action open to a purely economic discourse, it is necessary then to address some of the major issues in a more precise manner, associating cultural dynamics and the new interactive communication spaces in Europe.

Identities and Cultural Expressions

From whatever viewpoint, a fair appraisal of the reality of the European situation must consider the extraordinary cultural richness of the countries of Europe as the product both of an ancient and shared historical evolution and of an extraordinarily large range of regional traditions. The essential characteristic of this shared culture is its spirit of openness. There is no doubt that European culture has profited from the selection, interpretation and subsequent assimilation of external and older cultural evolutions, which cannot be dissociated from its own specific identity. Generally, this appropriation was the result of acts of conquest which led to domination and even the suppression of other cultures. By the same token, other cultures have evolved thanks to the intense enrichment brought to them by European cultural values.

Conscious of the composite and fragile nature of its own cultural identity, Europe must today show exemplary responsibility where its own cultural heritage is concerned, and with regards to its present-day and future cultural life. This responsibility must involve a greater sensitivity in its contacts with other cultures. Inescapably bound up in permanent exchanges with other evolving cultures, the dynamics of European culture can only be impoverished and compromised by misguided protectionism.

Yet, at the same time, faced with the enormous initiatives launched by the United States and by Japan, we also feel deep concern - and justifiably so - regarding the preservation of cultural expressions and identities in Europe. Waiting for the wave of multimedia products to unfurl, products of more or less limited value, designed, fabricated and homogenised to be easily sold on the world market, this concern anticipates the threat of a profound upheaval in the European media landscape; thanks to the powerful instrument which the information highways represent, this landscape could be submerged by an ocean of images of which only the smallest proportion has any redeeming artistic content.

The Specific Interest of the European Heritage in Multimedia Creation

Today, in the multimedia world, European backwardness is often bemoaned, from the perspective of the United States and Japan. But the main question here should not be the preoccupations of European industries, unable to profit fully from the vast potential of a future market. Everywhere in Europe the traditional cultural sectors are threatened by budgetary cuts, while at the same time there is a scramble to invest in the multimedia sector, in order to stand up against the gigantic economic investments of the Americans and the Japanese.

Thanks to its deep roots, enormous diversity and extraordinary richness, the European heritage constitutes the cultural treasure at the centre of the specific interest of the multimedia industry. The new interactive communication space will enlarge our horizons: but the price to pay for this incredible mass of ever-updated information may also be a loss, a loss difficult to appreciate, in the direct and sensorial contact between ourselves and reality. The rapid evolution of the global multimedia market, pushing the traditional arts and media into the background, may compromise the values and contents of the European heritage, levelling them down to a lowest common denominator. In the long term, the result of this globalisation may be an irreversible loss of European cultural identity.

As the information revolution accelerates, calling on ever-greater financial investments, only a vast intensification of the creative approach, throughout Europe, can succeed in counterbalancing a total commercialisation of the cultural sector. Yet the creative participation of all the cultural actors can only be initiated by a cultural policy directed in common at the European level. And the European multimedia industry, by accepting a larger share of responsibility for multimedia artistic creation, can only profit from this engagement in its own field.

Mobilisation of the Cultural Actors

If public authorities in Europe leave the field open to the economic interests of the "global players" in the vital sectors of information and communication, they must, in the interests of preserving our societies' cultural identity, establish norms that will ensure the beneficial use of new technologies. In order to prevent an irreversible impoverishment of European culture, the control of content and of its communication cannot be left to the sole ambitions of the industrial and commercial parties.

At the risk of encouraging Euro-scepticism, it should be stated that a better promotion of the enormous potential of new technologies for the cultural and social life of all our societies can only come about through a concerted harmonisation of cultural and economic policies. These must take into account and respect the cultural richness and diversity of all the societies in Europe and encourage the creative participation of all its cultural actors.

This necessary mobilisation of creative resources could be based on a growing number of initiatives in the artistic domain. In anticipation of the promising results expected from the association between art and new technology, research centres and centres of artistic experimentation have emerged in art schools throughout Europe. For several years, there have been exhibitions and festivals in this same field. Along with these initiatives, which are often of an institutional nature and which denote a growing acceptance of these new media by the concerned public, we also see the emergence of a large number of "private" cultural initiatives in the field of electronic networks, such as the Internet.

The aim of these initiatives is the study of specific techniques and the realisation and presentation of total multimedia works of art. They aim to promote innovation and also to criticise blind enthusiasm for the new communication technologies. In order to preserve Europe's identity and cultural diversity, and bring new life to it, it is precisely in this direction that the concerted efforts of its cultural and economic policies should be oriented.

Bernhard Serexhe is Curator at the Media Museum, Center for Art and Media ZKM, in Karlsruhe, Germany.