Digital Media and the Western Gaze
by Kehbuma Langmia
When Marshall McLuhan, the famous Canadian media theorist, predicted that electronic communication was to surpass human “in-person” communication in the 1960s, people thought he was having a nightmare. Today, he has been venerated. However, many questions continue to haunt us: Are we all equal in the virtual sphere when engaged in mediated communications? Are we on the same playing field? The answer is a resounding no because a good number of people have been left out in the periphery due to no fault of their own.
Digital divide is the term used to refer to those in the margins that have been marginalized. These people are not necessarily those in the developing worlds of Africa, Latin America and South East Asia, but also the disenfranchised media consumers living in the Western world. The recent decision by the FCC to reverse the net neutrality rule that placed every Internet user on equal footing in preference to giant companies like AT&T, Verizon, Amazon, Disney and others supports the allegation that corporate media is out to protect the interest of the rich.
Access is not the only challenge facing media consumers, especially in developing regions like Africa. Their languages, cultural, social, economic and political experiences have not been taken into consideration in the conceptualization, manufacture or distribution of media gadgets and contents. They have been left out. They are only in the receiving end to consume what originates from the West. In fact, it took pressure from Kiswahili scholars in 2009 to push Facebook to include a version for Swahili language users in East Africa. This is the second phase of colonization; what Thomas McPhail has aptly termed “Electronic Colonization Theory”. It is the firm belief of James Carey referring to Harold Innis—both eminent media scholars cited in my book, Globalization and Cyberculture: An Afrocentric Perspective—that “the increasing facility with which electronic media penetrated national boundaries worried Innis because it increased the capacities of imperialism and cultural invasion. Innis considered ‘monopolies’, whether of electrical technology or, for that matter, rigid orthodoxy, threats to human freedom and cultural survival” (Carey, 1992, p. 135).
Their views echo Thomas McPhail’s Electronic Colonization Theory, put forth fourteen years after Carey’s publication. As I write this piece just returning from my recent trip in Africa, nothing has changed. Instead, the situation has gotten worse, prompting me to agree with the famous African philosopher Cheik Anta Diop in my recent edited collection Black/Africana Communication Theory that indeed, “no nation can ever develop by using the language of another nation” (Asante, 2007 ). In fact, if we believe that all of a people’s culture is reflected in the language they use, then we have to start singing the dirges for the eventual burial of African culture in the era of media globalization where Western languages and cultures (English, French, Spanish, Portuguese) have colonized all the digital media spaces in all the states of Africa.
In short, issues like the use of emojis and other non-verbal communication in cyberspace have all been Westernized. There is no African language keyboard on any of the smartphones on the continent. Ninety-five percent of all the downloadable Apps are Western. African media consumers continue to play the role of dependency as they look up to new updates from Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Snapchat and Instagram without being consulted by Western Manufacturers on what is best for the consumers in the margin on the African continent.
Asante, M. K. (2007). Cheikh Anta Diop: An Intellectual Portrait. Los Angeles, CA: University of Sankore Press.
Carey, J. W. (1992). Communication as Culture. New York, NY: Routledge.
McPhail, T. L. ( 2006). Global Communications. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.
Kehbuma Langmia is Professor/Chair and Fulbright Scholar in the Department of Strategic, Legal and Management Communications, Howard University in Washington, DC, USA. He has extensive knowledge and expertise in Public Speaking, Information Communication Technology (ICT), Intercultural Communication and Social Media. He has published numerous books, book chapters and peer-reviewed journal articles nationally and internationally. He is the recipient of the 2017 Toyin Falola Book Award for his book, Globalization and Cyberculture: An Afrocentric Perspective (Palgrave 2016). His most recent publication is the edited volume Black/Africana Communication Theory (Palgrave 2018).