Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Columbia University professor discusses the history of global communication

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(Collegian File Photo)

(Collegian File Photo)

(Collegian File Photo)

By Ying Hua and Abigail Charpentier, Collegian Correspondent, Assistant News Editor

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Richard R. John discussed the development and challenges of global communication networks since 1800 with about 20 people on Thursday afternoon in the Communication Hub of the Integrative Learning Center.

John is currently a professor of history and communications in the Columbia School of Journalism. He is the former president of the Business History Conference and earned his Ph.D. in the history of American civilization at Harvard University.

John started his presentation by explaining how he categorized his research into four global communication regimes: Utilitarian (1840s-1860), Internationalist (1860s-1940s), Technocratic (1940s-1990s) and Corporatist (1990s-present.)

“My thesis is that global communication networks since the 1840s have evolved in four, distinct stages, what I call regimes,” John said. “They always have a political and economic dimensions and they have never operated completely independently of a state.”

According to John, the first regime was built in Florence in the 1840s by Italy, but was led primarily by the United Kingdom and United States. During this era, the postal service was the main provider for long distance, cross-border communication. By the 1860s, the political conflicts of Germany, Italy and the United States led them to control to the commercialization of ocean colonial spaces.

The Internationalist regime was dominated by European countries, such as Germany, France and Switzerland. The Universal Postal Union and the International Telegraph Union were founded in 1857 and 1867. In this new era, the Europeans set the cross-border standard, which spread to North Africa, Asia, Australia, North America and South America.

“Prior to the commercialization [of] the Internet, the mail, and not the telegraph or the telephone, was the prior medium for the cross board of communication for the vast majority of the world’s peoples,” John said.

John then continued on to state that wireless communication tools, such as satellites, helped globalize broadcasts in the third Technocratic regime. This presented new issues, including trying to block radio and television signals from nations.

“Commercialization of broadcast—radio and television—transformed cross-border communications in a rather obvious way,” he said. “It’s hard, if not impossible, to block radio and television signals crossing national boundaries. It’s much easier blocking the mail or the telegraph.”

John then went on to explain the fourth regime, the Corporatist regime, which is ruled by Apple, Google, Sina and Tencent. With the Internet as the main global communication network, primary control lies within corporations rather than nations, unlike the previous regimes. This explains why social media platforms, which are often owned by these corporations, are prominent in most countries.

After about 45 minutes of his presentation, John opened it up to questions from the audience. This led to conversations about developing global communication standards, free expression and the current investigation of Russia infiltrating the 2016 American election.

David Geddes, an undeclared freshman, went to John’s lecture for extra credit for his “Intro to Journalism” class and found the lecture “a lot more thought provoking than [he] thought it would be.”

“One thing that really stuck out in my mind…is that television stations are only nationwide,” Geddes said. “For some reason international television didn’t really catch on…The internet has changed all of that, and [John] thinks that’s not for the better.”

Bilge Narin, a postdoctoral researcher visiting the UMass departments of communication and journalism, expressed that the lecture made her consider the connection between past and future communications networks.

“[I] now realize that actually the past habits, past communication…affect [the] future,” Narin said.

Ying Hua can be reached at [email protected] Abigail Charpentier can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @abigailcharp.

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