The historical context of international communication


The study of contemporary international communication can be illuminated by an understanding of the elements of continuity and change in its development. The nexus of economic, military and political power has always
depended on efficient systems of communication, from flags, beacon fires and runners, to ships and telegraph wires, and now satellites. The evolution of telegraphic communication and empire in the nineteenth century exemplifies
these interrelationships, which continued throughout the twentieth century, even after the end of empire. During the two World Wars and the Cold War, the power and significance of the new media – radio and then television – for international communication were demonstrated by their use for international propaganda as well as recognizing their potential for socioeconomic development.
Communication and empire
Communication has always been critical to the establishment and maintenance of power over distance. From the Persian, Greek and Roman empires to the British, efficient networks of communication were essential for the imposition of imperial authority, as well as for the international trade and commerce on which they were based. Indeed, the extent of
empire could be used as an ‘indication of the efficiency of communication’ (Innis, [1950] 1972: 9). Communications networks and technologies were key to the mechanics of distributed government, military campaigns and trade. The Greek historian, Diodorus Cronus (4th century BC) recounts how the Persian king, Darius I (522-486 BC), who extended the Persian Empire from the Danube to the Indus, could send news from the capital to the provinces by means of a line of shouting men positioned on heights. This kind of transmission was 30 times faster than using runners. In De Bello Gallico,Julius Caesar (100-44 BC) reports that the Gauls, using the human voice, could call all their warriors to war in just three days. Using fire at night and smoke or mirrors during the day is mentioned in ancient texts, from the Old Testament to Homer.
While many rulers, including the Greek polis, used inscription for public information, writing became a more flexible and efficient means of conveying information over long distances: ‘Rome, Persia and the Great Khan
of China all utilised writing in systems of information-gathering and dispersal, creating wide-ranging official postal and dispatch systems’ (Lewis,1996:152). It is said that the Acta Diurna, founded by Julius Caesar and one
of the forerunners of modern news media, was distributed across most of the Roman Empire: ‘as communication became more efficient, the possibility of control from the centre became greater’ (Lewis, 1996: 156).
The Indian Emperor Ashoka’s edicts, inscribed on rock in the third century BC, are found across South Asia, from Afghanistan to Sri Lanka and writ writers had a prominent place in the royal household. During the
Mughal period in Indian history, the tvaqi’a-nawis (newswriters) were employed by the kings to appraise them of the progress in the empire. Both horsemen and despatch runners transmitted news and reports. In China, the
T’ang Dynasty (618-907) created a formal hand-written publication, the tipao or ‘official newspaper’ which disseminated information to the elite and in the Ching Period (1644-1911) private news bureaux sprang up which
composed and circulated official news in the printed form known as the Ch’ingpao (Smith, 1979).
In addition to official systems of communication, there have also always been informal networks of travellers and traders. The technologies of international communication and globalization may be contemporary phenomena
but trade and cultural interchanges have existed for more than two millennia between the Graeco-Roman world with Arabia, India and China. Indian merchandise was exported to the Persian Gulf and then overland,
through Mesopotamia, to the Mediterranean coast, and from there onwards to Western Europe. An extensive trans-Asian trade flourished in ancient times, linking China with India and the Arabic lands. Later, the Silk Route
through central Asia linked China, India and Persia with Europe.
Information and ideas were communicated across continents, as shown by the spread of Buddhism, Christianity and Islam.
The medium of communication developed from the clay tablet of Mesopotamia, the papyrus roll in ancient Egypt and in ancient Greece, to parchment codex in the Roman empire. By the eighth century, paper introduced
from China began to replace parchment in the Islamic world and spread to medieval Europe. Also from China, printing slowly diffused to Europe, aided by the Moors’ occupation of Spain, but it was not until the fifteenth
century, with the movable type printing press developed by Johann Gutenberg, a goldsmith in Mainz in Germany, that the means of communication were transformed.
By the beginning of the sixteenth century, the printing presses were turning out thousands of copies of books in all the major European languages. For the first time the Scriptures were available in a language other
than Latin, undermining the authority of priests, scribes and political and cultural elites. As a consequence, ‘the unified Latin culture of Europe was finally dissolved by the rise of the vernacular languages which was consolidated
by the printing press’ (Febvre and Martin, 1990: 332). Coupled with vernacular translations of the Bible by John Wycliffe in England and Martin Luther in Germany, the printing revolution helped to lay the basis for the
Reformation and the foundations of nation-state and of modern capitalism (Tawney, 1937; Eisenstein, 1979).
The new languages, especially Portuguese, Spanish, English and French, became the main vehicle of communication for the European colonial powers in many parts of the world. This transplantation of communication
systems around the globe resulted in the undermining of local languages and cultures of the conquered territories. The Portuguese Empire was one of the first to grasp the importance of the medium for colonial consolidation, with
the kings of Portugal sending books in the cargoes of ships carrying explorers. They opened printing presses in the territories they occupied – the first printing press was opened in Goa in 1557 and in Macao in 1588. Other
European powers also used the new technology and the printed book played an important role in the colonization of Asia. European languages – especially Portuguese, Spanish, English and French – became the main vehicle of
communication for the colonial powers in many parts of the world. This transplantation of communication systems around the globe created a new hierarchy of language and culture in the conquered territories (Smith, 1980).
The Industrial Revolution in Western Europe, founded on the profits of the growing international commerce encouraged by colonization, gave a huge stimulus to the internationalization of communication. Britain’s domination
of the sea routes of international commerce was to a large extent due to the pre-eminence of its navy and merchant fleet, a result of pioneering work in the mapping out of naval charts by the great eighteenth-century
explorers, such as James Cook, enabled also by the determination of longitude based on the Greenwich Meridian. Technological advances such the development of the iron ship, the steam engine and the electric telegraph all
helped to keep Britain ahead of its rivals.
The growth of international trade and investment required a constant source of reliable data about international trade and economic affairs, while the Empire required a constant supply of information essential for maintaining
political alliances and military security. Waves of emigration as a result of industrialization and empire helped to create a popular demand for news from relatives at home and abroad, and a general climate of international
awareness (Smith, 1980).
The postal reform in England in 1840, initiated by the well-known author, Anthony Trollope as Post-Master General, with the adoption of a single-rate, one penny postage stamp (the Penny Black), irrespective of distance, revolutionized postal systems. This was followed by the establishment of the Universal Postal Union in 1875 in Berne, under the Universal Postal Convention of 1874, created to harmonize international postal rates and to
recognize the principle of respect for the secrecy of correspondence. With the innovations in transport of railways and steamships, international links were being established that accelerated the growth of European trade and
consolidated colonial empires.

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