Infrastructures of Empire: Towards a Critical Geopolitics of Media and Information Studies

Miriyam Aouragh and Paula Chakravartty

Image Credit: 1001nights/iStock (All Rights Reserved)

The Arab Uprisings of 2011 seems to have been a turning point for media and information studies scholars to newly “discover” the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region as a site for theories of new media and social transformation. Much of this work argued that media technologies fuel or shape social and democratic transformation (Bennett and Segerbergh, 2013; Castells, 2013; Gerbaudo, 2012; Howard and Hussein, 2013). However, as events in the region in the aftermath of the uprisings make clear, when considering the subversive powers of digital media there is an urgent need to foreground geo-political historiesScant attention to geopolitical histories and the crises of neoliberal capitalism is partially explained by the limitations of Eurocentric discussions of Empire that had popularised in the 1970s and 1980s, in tandem with a turn in academia that saw the retreat of class and political-economy. [1]

Situating Debates

The US-led invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan in 2003 spurred a surge in scholarship and debates about the continuities and disjunctures between modes of imperial expansion and decline. These included works that focused on the transformation of US Empire (Kaplan and Pease, Grandin, Go) as well as the concept of Empire more broadly (ranging from Hardt and Negri on one hand to Mieksens-Wood on the other). In stark contrast, we find a visible dearth in scholarship and discussion on the topic of Empire in the fields of Communication, Media Studies and Information Studies over the course of the last 15 years. This is surprising given that as historians Alfred McCoy and Francisco Scarano (2009) have argued, “a broad spectrum of contemporary analysts, including staunch supporters of unbridled U.S. power, agree that empire…is the most appropriate descriptor for America’s current superpower status (28).”

What accounts for this loud silence? Debates about media imperialism saw a peak in the field in the 1970s until the early-1980s. This was a period when the emerging movement for national cultural production across Africa, Asia and Latin America, under the banner of Non-Aligned Movement, took on the first generation of trans-border data flow technologies. The near monopoly in global news gathering by only five (Western-based) news agencies and the increasing domination of American films and television programming worldwide was the main issue (Boyd-Barrett, Nordenstreng 1984, Mattelart, Schiller). It has been well documented how US media and advertising industries and the ideologically hostile Reagan administration overtly derailed even the weakest calls for a reversal of media imperialism through these efforts.

In retrospect, it is apparent that the calls for the New World Information and Communications Order (NWICO) were flawed in the double-standard with which many national leaders advocated for the democratization of global media flows while silencing national dissent at home (Alhassan and Chakravartty, 2011). Moreover, scholars of media imperialism from this period focused disproportionately on the machinations of media, state capital relationship in the US and West, with less analytic interest in the actual “Third World”.  It is clear that the two main shortcomings of the earlier school of media imperialism are the inattention to questions of race and racial violence and the absence of an accounting for non-Western (state) power and capital.

By the 1990s, critiques of media imperialism emerged focusing on the cultural dimension of the argument. Theorists of globalization like Arjun Appadurai, John Tomlinson and Homi Bhabba were influential in arguing against cultural homogenization as the inevitable outcome of global media integration—and instead, research attention turned to hybridity and the localization of global consumer cultural flows. The falling out of favour of the media imperialism framework for more nuanced understandings of globalized media and culture is only one part of the story. Here, it is important to remember that the more radical version of the cultural imperialism critique was initially articulated against the backdrop of international socialist and decolonization movements (Chakravartty and Zhao, 2008: 15). Anti-colonial Marxism going back to Aime Cesaire, Frantz Fanon and beyond, has long interrogated the centrality of colonial/racial expropriation in capitalism. In drawing from the lines of argument that have long informed these critical debates, we are wary of duplicating the false dichotomy that pits class versus race (or political economy versus cultural studies) to the problem at hand.

We argue that a more fruitful engagement requires a basic examination of the ways in which post/colonial infrastructures of empire—whilst part of existing rivalries emanating from the 20th Century—are metamorphosed for the benefit of new regional alliances today.  The context for digital infrastructure is marked by colonial encounters as well as the history of uneven or fractured capitalism. The earlier manifestations of communication technologies (underwater telegraph and telephony cables, telecommunications networks) and recent digitally networked technologies are both part of these splintered urban infrastructures. We draw from the work of critical geography and urban studies scholars of who posit that these infrastructures are material manifestations of “new notions of speed, light, power and communications” (Graham and Marvin, 1996: 40; Brian Larkin 2008).

More specifically, following Larkin, we understand infrastructure as both the physical stuff of cables and wires that have long been seen as modern public goods as well as the “soft” more amorphous networks of cultural exchange. In contrast to previous studies of “media imperialism” which are remembered primarily for an emphasis on the unequal flows of culture from the first to the third world, here we are collapsing the distinction and drawing on a definition of infrastructure as “…a totality of both technical and cultural systems that create institutionalized structures whereby goods of all sorts circulate” (Larkin, 2008: 6).  Through a maze of tangible wires and obtrusive policies media and information infrastructures are therefore both central as digital nodes for financial transaction and trade but also key in squeezing down dissent or co-opting social movements. Drawing from the recent example of the “rise of the BRICS” discussions, we elaborate our argument below.

Inter-Asian Shifts or ‘Third World’ Revenge?

It is widely accepted across a number of fields including media studies that the ‘emerging’ BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) economies destabilize the unwritten pact of financial distribution that shaped 20th century geopolitics. The top-5 list of largest economy in terms of purchasing power parity includes two BRICS countries (India and China). But as Colin Sparks has put it (2015), given the vast political economic differences between and within the countries grouped together somewhat randomly the biggest strength of BRICS so far seems to be its acronym (42-65).

Yet, it comes as no surprise that developing states, humiliated for decades, with more leverage are pushing back in multilateral forums. So it is important to pause and make sense of the allure in the idea of “the rise of the BRICS”. For example, the Chinese initiative to set up an Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank as a counterweight to the US-controlled World Bank, will focus an estimated 13 percent of its $8 trillion budget on telecommunications infrastructure alongside electricity and transportation. Similarly, the internet plays an important role in the efforts as attested by the Internet Roundtable for Emerging Countries in Beijing 2012; the World Conference on International Telecom in Dubai in 2012; and the NetMundial in Sao Paulo 2014. After requests via the existing channels were systematically blocked they now express critique against US dictates regarding internet protocols and the general telecom logic in their own conferences.

Also crucial in the debate about techno-infrastructures is the BRICS plan for an alternative cable system with which to challenge US centric networks that is potentially more secure and cheaper.[2] This cable is the most media-hype prone example of the BRICS move that goes straight into the heart of the matter of circumvention of imperial infrastructures. It was suppose to start in 2014 but delayed and finally aborted. And what began as a BRICS cable resurfaced as a Brazilian cable (connected via Portugal), moreover the silence and secrecy around it suggests internal conflicts and US pressure. The bitter irony is that this fibre optic cable system is meant to increase access to BRICS economies (Zhao 2015: 72), i.e. to benefit the BRICS corporations that are embedded (and dependent on) in a US-led global economy.

The BRICS political leaders know very well the ICT infrastructures are a lifeline, less so because they want to diversify cultural production but more often in pursuit of greater market advantage and capitalist accumulation. Is this rise of ‘the rest’ then something progressive nonetheless? Shouldn’t a de-westernisation of capitalism be cheered no matter the exact outcomes?

Table 1 (collage of online images linked to BRICS internet debate)

Rather than cheerleading, our aim here is to critically unmask the hidden structures of dominance in order to show the similarities instead of only the differences between large and small imperial powers. We think that a bi-polar view obscures the east-south/south-south dynamics; it constrains media scholars to see that rivalries are both indigenous and grafted by geopolitical interventions (Major and Miller: 8-12).

As global media and communication remains embedded in western discourse the increasing importance of China and India are interesting venues. But who does it help? The rise of India’s telecom and IT billionaires does little to benefit the lives of millions of citizens who live in severe poverty. Nor do its strategic ties with US and Israeli cyber-security interests help the liberation of Palestinians. The fact that India is the world’s largest importer of arms could be seen as part of its closer cooperation with Israeli cyber warfare technology (which it generously uses to suppress internal dissent  whether in Kashmir or across Maoist zones of conflict), should raise alarm, not pride. Neither are China’s ventures in Africa driven by South-South solidarity but by the promise of untapped markets and resource extraction.[3] And as observed most clearly since 2011, the alliances with local dictators against popular struggles in Syria or Yemen are often bargaining chips for power struggles for regional control.


Online technology infrastructures inhibit powerful transmitters that are linked to intricate systems of cables and splitters; they host meta-data storage reservoirs as big as football fields; they manage continuous digital broadcasting streams that are connected to complex satellites networks in space. While imperial motives outline much of the techno-security alliances, the reconfigurations also depict geopolitical anxieties.

BRICS captures the imagination of millions through the power of wishful thinking. This is hardly a case of ‘non-alignment 2.0’ (Khilan et al 2012). As widely known, the term BRICS was coined by an economist working for Goldman Sachs in 2001. The popular use of the term in media and scholarly circles, rarely acknowledges its origins as a fantasy in a sense by one of the worst offenders in the banking sector responsible for the global financial crisis of 2008. Moreover, the BRICS formulation serves as an  ideological instrument whereby fast-growing brown capitalist entities might offer a civilized front in what emerged in the Islamophobic discourse to benefit the endless war on terror since 2001.

The particular example of a BRICS-centered media and information studies as a way of decentering Eurocentric media and information studies provides a compelling example of the limits if not dangers of not foregrounding geopolitics and the exigencies of empire. A critical geopolitics of media and information studies approach in contrast would focus on actors that are key in challenging existing hegemonic infrastructure in relation to US imperial interests and across intra-imperial rivalries in the Inter-Asian context.



References : 

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[1] We develop this more in the introduction to a forthcoming special issue on “Infrastructures of Empire” for Media, Culture and Society (Fall, 2015).

[2] See for instance: <>;<>;<>.

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