Catalysts: Information Technology and Telecommunication Companies

The movement of ideas began with people travelling. For millennia, human beings have migrated and have taken their cultures with them. The spread of the world’s great religions illustrates how ideas and beliefs can cross continents and transform societies.

Great empires have often had the same effects, seeking to link their territories together through the organisation of cultural life.

The rise of nation-states and nationalism produced a massive new wave of cultural formation. Nation-states developed new systems for disseminating ideas and communications; centralized education, the teaching of languages and new systems of communication, like the post and the telephone, all shaped the way in which ideas and values spread across societies.

Today, Zamyn notes the sheer scale, intensity, speed and volume of global communications which has massively accelerated earlier developments in human communications. The diffusion of radio, television, the internet, satellite and digital technologies has made instant communication possible. Through radio, film, television and the internet, people everywhere are exposed to the images and values of other cultures as never before. Zamyn believes that what is striking about these developments is not just their impact on culture and communications, but also on how these media themselves – above all, telecommunications and IT systems – reconstitute the nature of social, economic and political life. The new global economy, global financial markets, new forms of migration and regulation, all depend for their reach and efficacy on these developments.

Zamyn is interested in exploring the way communication corporations today profoundly influence the changing nature and form of cultures – a role earlier undertaken by the churches, empires and states. IT and telecommunication systems create an increasingly dense and fast-moving pattern of cultural interchange. Companies, consumers, and ordinary people the world over shape their identities in this flux of technological and communicative change. The old centralized hierarchies which sought to organize people from the top to the bottom, increasingly give way to much more fluid and horizontal channels of understanding and communication. These are full of potential for the enhancement of mutual understanding and new risks associated with the weakening of borders, the rapid movement of ideas, and political reactions to these patterns in the form of the re-assertion of fundamentalist identities – religious, nationalist and ethnic.

The new age of communication creates new dreams, aspirations, myths and responses.

In the context of a world which is ’shrinking’ in many key respects, and marked by the dense movement of people and ideas, the role of cultural and communications corporations is expanded. Companies now find themselves at the intersection of public and private worlds, with new and shifting forms of rights and responsibilities. Zamyn’s programme is to reflect on and examine these new circumstances, setting out choices and possibilities.

David Held, Director of the Institute of Global Policy, Durham University, for Zamyn

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