restricted access Connections and Differences: Spatial Dimensions of Television History
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Curtin !Connections and Differences: Spatial Dimensions of Television History 50 I Film & History Television as Historian | Special In-Depth Section A few years ago, I received an unsolicited copy of a public relations videotape from ATT offering an optimistic narrative of how the most recent communications revolution will alter our everyday lives. The opening shot of Connections: ATT's Vision ofthe Future features the title scripted across a brilliant daylight image of a snow-covered Himalayan mountain peak. This shot then dissolves to the misty ambiance of a dimly-lit weaving hut where a mustachioed, elderly man rises slowly from a handloom and ambles across the shop to a low table where a laptop computer is emitting a friendly electronic gurgle, signaling an incoming call. At the touch of a button, the screen lights up with the image of a twenty-something western woman, Lilly, who is telephoning from an airliner somewhere over the Pacific Ocean as she wings her way home to the United States. The conversation (which features simultaneous translation) soon adds a third link, as Lilly's Belgian fiancee joins the transcontinental deliberations regarding a special carpet that is being woven as a wedding present for the young American doctor who, in the words of Shri Nan, "has done so much for our village." By the end of the video, the narrative introduces characters who represent a variety of social, economic, and cultural identities as well as a host ofnew media technologies ranging from satellite teleconferencing to computer-aided design to children's virtual reality games (which can be remotely monitored by doting parents even while they are away at work). In every instance, the video suggests that communication technologies are working to overcome geographic barriers and resolve social tensions. As has been the case for over thirty years, such corporate fantasies of the future prominently feature television as the master technology that connects people across vast spatial expanses, facilitating the circuits of production and exchange, as well as social interaction . Although there is a popular dimension to these fantasies, they are nevertheless inextricably connected to the historical project of capitalism, which is to alter and expand the operating spheres of profitmaking enterprise. Many scholars have described this globalization process from a variety ofperspectives and have marveled at the power of corporate enterprises that organize people and places around the world into an integrated economic system dominated by the abstract logics of commodification and exchange . We see this critique in the work of political economists, such as Immanuel Wallerstein and Alain Lipietz, as well as geographers like David Harvey and Edward Soja.2 Yet the integrative project of capitalism that they describe so well is sometimes mistaken for a process ofhomogenization in the realm popular culture . We encounter this confusion in the cultural critiques offered by scholars like Herbert Schiller, Ben Bagdikian, and Edward Herman and Robert McChesney who contend that the rise ofhuge, transnational media conglomerates has led to the steady erasure ofdifferences and the demise oflocal and national public spheres.3 In their eyes, corporate leviathans have narrowed the spectrum offree expression , serving up a menu ofcultural offerings that range from the inane to the banal. The diverse and animated discourse ofa prior era has been displaced by a bland and indifferent, ifhyperkinetic, stream ofcommercial images. We see a related concern about the fate of public culture in the work ofpostmodern and postcolonial scholars such as ArifDirlik, Masao Miyoshi, and Edward Said, each ofwhom suggests that the homogenizing power ofcorporate media is one of the key attributes of the current era ofglobalization.4 Many historians ofmass media have adopted a similar logic in their work. Histories ofprinting, broadcasting, and cinema have tended to emphasize the ways in which media smooth out cultural differences and foster a national consciousness. Prominent television historians like Erik Barnouw, J. Fred McDonald, and Christopher H. Sterling and John M. Kittross have written the pre-eminent accounts of how television came to dominate national culture by single-mindedly pursuing a commercial logic that tended to favor uniformity over diversity, replication over innovation, and the national over the local.5 Although these tendencies are mitigated somewhat by the rise of cable, the...