Cover page

Table of Contents


Title page

Copyright page


1: Introduction: Frames and Dialogues


Back to Banalities: Redefining New Media, Development and Globalization


2: Communicative Ecology and Communicative Assemblages

The Media Are Not the Message: A Story from Sri Lanka

Communicative Ecologies and Communicative Assemblages

‘The Media’ and (Western) Modernity

Connections and Exclusions: Communicative Algorithms


3: Media Forms and Practices

Media Modalities in Accra

Media and Modalities

The Monologic of ‘Information Society’: A Utilitarian Modality


4: Making Up the Future: New Media as the Material Culture of Development

Two Development Theorists

Northern Narratives and ‘Network Ethics’

Tools and Transformations: The International Division of Ethics


5: Scaling Practices and Devices: Globalizing Globalization

Globalization as Development Narrative and Scalar Narrative

Scaling, Scaling Practices and Scaling Devices

Asturias: Scaling Cultural Flows in Northern Spain

Scaling and Development

Development as a Scaling Device?


6: Conclusion: Politics of Research: Forms of Knowledge, Participation and Generalization

ictPR and EAR

Development as an Assemblage

Participating, Theorizing and Learning

The Symmetries of ‘Learning’



For my three girls – Jo, Bella and Rosa – without whom this book might have been finished years ago but life wouldn't have been so much fun.

And for Eileen Cadman (1950–2013): author, editor, intellectual, feminist, gardener, astrologer, etc. …

Title page


This book draws on many partnerships and conversations, formal and informal, because of its roots in numerous collaborative research projects and because of its over-long gestation.

Firstly, being so project-based, there are funders and co-workers to whom I am indebted. More specific acknowledgements are made in con­text, but overall the research projects on which I've drawn are as follows:

Secondly, there are many friends and colleagues with whom I have discussed aspects of this work over the years; to avoid getting too effusive I'll name just a few who have had the most direct formative in­fluence on this book: Daniel Miller, Jo Tacchi, Nick Couldry and Jo Entwistle.

Thirdly, I have been blessed with some fabulous Ph.D. students who have played a huge role in my intellectual development (whatever my role in theirs) during the writing of this book; amongst those who have had the most direct impact are several who are explicitly cited in the text as collaborators as well as interlocutors: I am massively indebted to Tomas Ariztia-Larrain, Daiana Beitler, Jenna Burrell and Lena Simanyi for key aspects of this book; but I would also specifically like to acknowledge Oriana Bernasconi and Sandy Ross for particularly challenging and important conversations that have really helped me figure things out. I would also like to acknowledge several years' worth of my MSc Culture and Society students on whom I piloted many of these arguments and stories, and whose critical responses have been more formative than they might have realized.

Finally, I want to acknowledge the role of three of my oldest friends, none of them academics – Mike Hughes, Andy Moye and the late Eileen Cadman – in forming and challenging the ways I make sense of life in conversations that now go back over thirty years.


Introduction: Frames and Dialogues

Over the past few decades, the three terms in my title – new media, development and globalization – have fused into a holy trinity through which people increasingly organize and act upon their beliefs about the future. Individually, each term invokes cosmologies that structure our conceptual and practical universes around fundamental aspects of life: communication and mediation (new media); social change over historical time (development); and connectedness at different spatial scales (globalization). They are also so tightly interwoven that each term appears as both manifestation and cause of the other two: new media (or ICTs or digital culture or cognate terms) are understood as inherently globalizing and as constituting the inevitable informational future for social development; development is normatively, even commonsensically, narrated as a transition to unimpeded and technically enabled global information flows and associated forms of organization and sociality (‘networks’); and globalization designates an informational reconstitution of space and connection that is often taken for granted as describing our collective socio-economic future.

Together they make a compelling and seemingly irrefutable case about the way the world is going within which ‘everyone’ must position themselves, as if people everywhere were adapting to an altered natural habitat: individuals, households, communities, nations, the globe, have been set, as their fundamental tasks, the need to comprehend these changes, to imagine the new agencies and qualities that will emerge from them and, on the basis of these knowledges and desires, to forge strategies for surviving or advancing or ‘developing’. These interlinked processes are confronted as dangers and threats, as challenges, as opportunities, even as final solutions to the problems previously posed by unequal development or capitalism or pre-modern techno-cultures. In all of these cases, however, these interlinked terms have come to be understood in a thoroughly realist mode whereby they provide the analytical frameworks in and through which people are to organize social thought and action. More concretely, as academics who are researching and teaching this stuff, we are channelled into operating within containers labelled ‘new media’, ‘development’ and ‘globalization’, and their interweaving, in our production and circulation of new knowledges.

The aim of this book is to reposition these three terms and their conjoint narrative as just one kind of story about the future, told by certain kinds of people, and therefore as performatively part of the construction of whatever future will actually eventuate: the aim is simply to achieve an anthropological distance from these terms so that they can always be traced to someone's cosmology somewhere, and so that all contributions – northern or southern – to debates about communication, change and connectedness might be treated as equally or symmetrically cosmological. Stated more academically, I am concerned to demote all three from acting as analytical frames or metalanguages that contain (and constrain) research and political action, and to recognize them instead as part of the fields we study and act within, to render them as topics rather than resources. In this sense, I am not primarily concerned with criti­quing these concepts, or debunking them as fictions or hype, or presenting new findings that confirm or refute or revise them, or adding new concepts that would help practitioners do (or contest) media, development or globalization ‘better’, though some of all that will inevitably be involved.

More specifically, and more urgently, the aim is to anthropologize these terms, recognizing them as elements of specifically northern cosmologies: stories ‘we’ tell about the rest of the world but which then structure and contain ‘their’ practical and ethical sense of the future and its possibilities. The present discussion is entirely structured by a series of ethnographic fieldwork encounters with new media, development and globalization in several non-northern locations (and a couple of marginal northern ones) – in the Caribbean and Latin America, South Asia and West Africa (detailed below) – in which the three terms of our title were encountered from non-northern standpoints, at the receiving end of beliefs, practices and regulatory controls organized through this trinity, and largely experienced as naturalized and realist terms, as references to objective processes established through impersonal knowledges that all participants regarded as social facts. By looking from the outside – standing in a different place – at northern beliefs about media, development and globalization we can make all three look strange, local, contingent, as part of northern cosmologies of pretty dubious generality. And all three terms are very much northern terms – they are both geographically and historically very specific and they are bound up with histories of northern preoccupations: media and development are inextricably tied to post-war Euro-American history, in the desire – an anxious one throughout post-war reconstruction and the Cold War – to construct a world of liberal democracy that necessarily included undistorted public spheres and private markets. New media and globalization are equally inseparable from a more recent redefinition of the West that envisages renewal through connectedness.

These three terms, naturalized as unchallengeable facts and frameworks, obviously come from somewhere very particular (and indeed originate partly from metropolitan academics like myself), and so another way of putting the problem is the idea that, historically, ‘the North provides the theory; the South provides the data’.1 This phrase captures and condenses a tremendous complexity of power relations, as well as a contemporary division of intellectual labour. Amongst other things it references a colonial history in which southern peoples were simultaneously and inseparably objects of knowledge and of rule, a doubled epistemological and political subordination – a knowledge/power coupling that has arguably continued seamlessly into postcolonial ‘development’ (Escobar 1995, 2000; Rahnema and Bawtree 1997). It references the extent to which southern experiences are regarded not as sui generis histories to be traced and lived but as merely local instances of global developmental logics (progress, modernization, information society) that are defined in the North, modelled on its experiences, hopes and anxieties, but presented as unanswerable and impersonal social facts. And it references an asymmetry of representation and self-representation, of innovation, discovery and creation: the stories we invent and tell ourselves about the way our world is going tend to come from the North (and, if not, they are treated as ‘culture’ or ‘belief’ or ‘identity’); and in this global division of narration, southern peoples are not narrators (agents) – or, at best, they are unreliable narrators – but are rather facts (objects) which may or may not fit into the story. Indeed, the structuring southern experience of ICTs (information and communication technologies) for/in development has been anxiety or even panic as to whether they fit in to the normative techno-developmental path of becoming an information society (as, for example, in the issue of ‘digital divide’ or Castells-style ‘informational black holes’), whether people or communities or nations will fall into the blank spaces between nodes, and whether their marginality might become irreversible.

The aim of this book, then, is to challenge ‘new media’, ‘development’ and ‘globalization’ as analytical frameworks, with obscured northern origins, into which southern ‘facts’ (people, lives, histories, plans) must fit themselves, and instead to assert an analytical and political symmetry between people's evolving theorizations and practices of communication, change and connection. Put crudely, the aim of most of the ethnographic storytelling in this book is to consistently portray development ‘beneficiaries’ in southern places and development agents in northern ones (whether in agencies, academies or government) as in principle identical: they are all treated simply as people trying to make sense of and act upon transformations of communication, change and connection. They clearly do so under extremely and frequently obscenely unequal conditions of knowledge and power (some of which inequalities can be traced precisely through this political division of epistemological standing between northern theories and southern facts); but, in analytical principle, any southern villager and any American professor is identically, and equally fallibly, attempting to theorize social change – as a basis for social action – under conditions of incomplete, contingent and situated knowledges. Let's try starting from there.

The strategy that is pursued here is best described in terms of Latour's (1988a, 1988b, 2005) notion of an ‘infra-language’ (though in the book I tend to use his simpler injunction to deploy intentionally ‘banal and empty’ concepts). Unlike the metalanguages of classical and critical social thought, whose universalistic aim is to contain or subsume everyone and everything, infra-languages, in Latour's extension of both ethnomethodology and semiotics, aim simply to provide ways of moving between the different frames of analysis that are at play in the field, including ways of moving between the analyst's frame of analysis and the frames of those they seek to understand. This is done by trying to ‘define a completely empty frame that enable[s us] to follow any assemblage of heterogeneous entities’ and enables the researcher to identify ‘how any entity builds its world’ (Latour 1988a), without presuming to specify – in advance and as a matter of theoretical assumption – anything at all about the shape of the entities, actions or worlds to be traced, or, more precisely, to allow the traces to be made by the actor-network to be recorded:

When [actor-network theory/ANT] says that actors may be human or unhuman, that they are infinitely pliable, heterogeneous, that they are free associationists, know no differences of scale, that there is no inertia, no order, that they build their own temporality, this does not qualify any real observed actor, but is the necessary condition for the observation and the recording of actors to be possible. Instead of constantly predicting how an actor should behave, and which associations are allowed a priori, A[N]T makes no assumption at all, and in order to remain uncommitted needs to set its instrument by insisting on infinite pliability and absolute freedom. (Latour 1988a)

This is a very promising strategy for dealing with the long-recognized conundrum of social thought that Giddens (1984) described as the ‘double hermeneutics’ (for use of this concept in development research, see McKemmish, Burstein, Faulkhead et al. 2012; McKemmish, Burstein, Manaszewicz et al. 2012), the recursive relationship between lay and expert concepts, but it is not as easy as Latour makes it sound here. We are dealing with relations between lay and expert knowledges that are not only analytically but also politically, institutionally and processually impossible to separate out. Not only are sociologists limited to producing accounts of accounts (if possibly with more rigour or reflexivity about the rules of the game of knowledge), but their accounts enter into the production of the world they are trying to account for and – as Latour (1988a) himself blithely notes in the same article – they too are actors who may be ‘primum inter pares’, but who also ‘strive for parity or primacy like any other’ actor: we academics are always in the field; we always influence the field; but we are always also contestants within the field. We need only look at the fate of the term ‘network’ (Barry 2001; Latour 2010; Riles 2000; Strathern 1996, 2004 [1991]) to see the kind of exceptionally fancy footwork required by Latour himself to distinguish an empty infra-linguistic use of the term ‘network’ from the obsessive and ubiquitous use of the term throughout the fields which he has tried to study using the same term. Others, such as Castells, do not even try to address this politics of lay and expert classification which is so hugely consequential for ordinary lives, academic knowledges and political governance.

Because of this messy relationship to the world, infra-languages are necessarily tactical and provisional, moves in a political game of knowledge rather than devices for nailing down meanings and standpoints. Neologisms rapidly fill up with meaning and start performing in the world; attempts to reclaim or ‘queer’ older terms soon get defused by entering into routine communication, losing all shock or alienation value. It is hard to stay ahead of this game, even when one properly acknowledges it. The relation between ‘our’ academic concepts and ‘theirs’ involves a complex, mobile, reflexive and historicizing dialectic, one that is tactical as much as epistemological, and this comes out very clearly when placed in a development context. Throughout the book we will try out several ‘banal and empty’ concepts or definitions that aim to place all participants or voices within one frame, or which allow us as scholars to move between frames; but these moves are indeed tactical and provisional and unavoidably inelegant (by virtue of their desire to evade commonsense). In Chapters 2 and 3, for example, we look at what it means to use the words ‘media’ and ‘new media’ in academic discourse and in development practice, and this prompts us to retreat to the emptier notions of ‘communicative ecology’ and ‘communicative assemblages’. These neologisms simply seek to enframe all the communicative resources (technologies, institutions, aesthetic forms, practices, interactional rules, material properties, etc.) that people might connect up in order to make and operate means of communicating. The communicative assemblages we observe in the field may include some that look like ‘media’, or are labelled as ‘media’ by some or all participants, or are regulated in terms of the idea of ‘media’, but that is to be observed, not assumed. The banal and empty infra-language of communicative assemblages and ecologies should allow ‘media’ to be observed and contested as one way in which some actors may organize the field rather than as a universal and unchallengeable category through which we as researchers covertly organize the field and the actors within it (and thereby help development agents and agencies organize the world and its politics in particular and unexamined ways), as well as organizing our own professional worlds through notions like media studies, media sociology and media anthropology. At the same time, however, ‘communicative assemblage’ should not be reified as an unchallengeable analytical framework; it is itself a move in a game, part of a Gramscian ‘war of position’. Were ‘communicative assemblage’ ever to enter the lexicon of UNESCO development practices, we would of course have to invent a new term to reconstitute the space of symmetrical exchange and dialogue.

Similarly, in Chapter 4, we will try to redefine ‘development’ (though in this case without adopting a new word) in an empty and generic way that distances it from its place both within modernist thought (development as accounts of the normative path of social change) and within the development industry or bureaucracy (development as technologies for realigning or ‘developing’ those who have fallen outside or behind that normative path of social change). We might think of development, as above, more simply and banally as a condition of seeking to understand and act upon the future under conditions of uncertain knowledge, a characterization that clearly fits both ‘developers’ in the North and ‘beneficiaries’ in the South. Following my definition, everyone has to be a development theorist, in the most empty sense that all action is based on fallible hypotheses as to how the world works and changes.

In Chapter 5, globalization is ‘demoted’ from a framework for dealing with the changing nature of social connectedness to one kind of theory or practice of ‘scaling’ – of measuring, representing and acting upon connections at different degrees of proximity. Crudely, ‘globalization’ needs to be understood not as a realist process to which southern actors need to effectively respond (or which they must empirically refute), but rather as what has been described as a genre of ‘scaling narrative’ (Cameron and Palan 2004b; Gonzalez 2006), involving scaling practices, devices and representations. And again, in unashamedly populist terms, we need to treat seriously and equivalently the ways in which ‘beneficiaries’ are just as busy theorizing scales, connections and communications as are their ‘developers’: all social action requires geo-positionings or mappings that place people in the world at different levels of granularity. The question is simply: what maps do we and they produce and act on?

I want to be clear, from the start, that, when encountered in the context of development practice and North–South relations, the problems and strategies I am identifying are explicitly political ones. The problem with ‘new media’, ‘development’ and ‘globalization’ is not a problem of incorrect knowledge or theory but a problem of democracy and power. The move from metalanguages to infra-languages is a move from pretending to an expertise above the level of other people's knowledges and theorizations of their own situation, conditions and practices to an engagement with how people (including oneself and one's development partners) make and understand their worlds, and how they communicatively engage in that process. This is a move from containing, regulating and governing ‘their’ worlds based on claims to an unchallengeable rationality to an open engagement in dialogue over how the world does, will or should work. The irony of raising these issues in the context of development practice is that development exemplifies both the evils of asymmetries in the framing of social change (as in periods of structural adjustment ruled by economic experts), on the one hand, and, on the other hand, very well-intentioned attempts and procedures for bringing other knowledges into the frame, such as participatory development, the languages of empowerment and capabilities, and even a growing acceptance of new methodologies such as ethnography. More­over the very centrality of new media, information and networks to narratives of development should give an extra recursive twist to this inclusion of ‘the other’: shouldn't the world move through the linking of nodes rather than a subsumption under hierarchized categories?

With these questions in mind, the book unsurprisingly ends (Chapter 6) with a discussion of the politics of knowledge and research themselves. The concern is that even the most well-meaning attempts – such as ‘participatory research’ – to roll back the rule of expertise and the framing of beneficiaries by means of unchallengeable theorizations (‘information society’, ‘network society’) involve an insufficiently radical understanding of the epistemological implications of changing the terms of communication. On the one hand, attempts to mobilize and valorize knowledges can simply end up appropriating and co-opting them as local examples of media, development or globalization. On the other hand, attacks on the monolithic and ideological nature of development discourse, such as those by Escobar (1995) and Ferguson (1994, 2006), seem simply to replace a framing by mainstream experts with a framing by critical ones that is no less absolute. The problem is not just about including the excluded or about challenging ideology; it is an almost Habermasian question of discourse ethics: how can knowledges, voices, communications, interactions, meet on a seriously level playing field, defined by the discursive capacity of each participant to identify and call into question (i.e., demand good reasons for) any claim – empirical, ethical, analytical – such that no argument can win simply by making itself the framework that contains, and adjudicates the rationality of, all the others?

In the context of ICTs and development what I particularly appreciate about Latour's strategic response is its pragmatic and profoundly anti-theoretical character. The idea of infra-language foregrounds research as itself a network-constructing activity: we understand our task as researchers as being not to contain or subsume others but to negotiate our relationship to them. This is to understand research as practical politics. The idea of an infra-language, of using banal concepts, is simply a way of making central and unignorable the relationship between my concepts and ‘theirs’, and therefore to foreground the ways in which that relationship is or isn't transparent, responsive and democratic. It is a move to a neutral or empty space in which conversations can take place and where the baggage that all participants bring with them can be opened up for inspection.

One last introductory point about infra-languages. So far I have been emphasizing analytical symmetry, but there is another dimension to asymmetry that runs throughout the book: what might be called ‘ethical’ asymmetry (see particularly Chapter 4). How do different deployments of our three terms distribute social agency and identify transformations in the nature of both agency and sociality? The conjuncture of new media, development and globalization narratives in the North has been characterized by extreme and often utopian visions of fundamental transformations in the nature of both social agency and sociality, in our sense of what it means to be an actor and how actors are organized within reproducible social forms. These visions characterize not only counter-cultural avant-gardisms such as cyberculture (in which people might become not only networked but post-human), but also mainstream visions of new economy, information society or network society that are seriously entertained within the heartlands of capitalism (Thrift 2005) and international governance (World Summit on the Information Society, WSIS, see below). In all these cases, new media act as a kind of material culture of development through which people imagine, articulate and enact futures. We can characterize this material culture in terms of the idea of ‘network ethics’: through their engagement with and transaction of these privileged technological objects, people imagine and specify new forms of agency and sociality in terms of the available and emergent possibilities of connecting and associating that they perceive or experience. This should suggest to us another symmetry: rural Ghanaians first encountering a mobile phone will understand and imagine the nature of their agency and social connection through the kinds of communicative assemblages they can operate just as much as – but differently from – geeks in London who experience the expansion of their social networks through the latest iteration of Facebook. In simple terms, we all renegotiate our sense of ourselves and our relationships through the objects we use and transact.

Network ethics as articulated over the past few decades of northern experience of the digital have generally taken the form of universalistic dreams and hopes, often technologically deterministic (e.g., the internet will produce freedom, disintermediation, transcendence of racism and nationalism, etc.), whereby we can imagine fundamental transformations. And yet at the same time, they point to fundamental asymmetries: in development contexts, new media are generally understood not as the material culture of transformation but rather as narrowly instrumental tools for the more efficient achievement of unaltered ends by unaltered agents but under newly modernized conditions. Not the imagination of new selves and sociality through new assemblages but a more efficient way to be who one always was, or to preserve an ‘indigenous’ culture or identity (‘Self’ as opposed to ‘Net’, in Castells' terms), as if we were dealing with anthropological myths of pre-contact authenticity. There is, we might say, an international division of ethics, of agency and transformation, a fundamental ethical asymmetry in how subjectivity and change are imagined and attributed: whereas northerners can excitedly worry about the changing nature of self, work, community and politics, beneficiaries of ICT for Development (ICT4D) are to find work in call centres or data-entry factories that utilize their competitive advantage to better place them within a conventional division of labour and trade, or to use ICTs to meet ‘basic needs’. It would be nice, even as a thought experiment, to imagine what development practice might look like if it was based on extending to southern beneficiaries the utopian and radical dreams of transformation for which northerners have used this new material culture, if development were framed in terms of maximal cultural change instead of ICTs as the informational equivalent of digging more wells.

The tensions resulting from this ethical asymmetry, from the unequal distribution of network ethics, are usually easily accessible ethnographically and analytically through material culture studies, as well as sociology of consumption: people don't ‘use tools’, and tool use as an implicit model for ICT4D is ethically and pragmatically a very bad strategy to adopt. At most this version of object relations only suffices when the ‘tools’ have become routine, stable and unregarded, and even such moments are at best treated as provisional. People in contact with new machines for communicating are reconfiguring and reimagining who they are, what they can and should do, where they might go or ‘develop’ in the future, what counts as a relationship, as communication, as information, how people can – or are now expected to – make connections and associations. In the ethical imaginations they articulate in and through the things they transact, the ‘beneficiaries’ in our ethnographic stories are entirely the same as ‘us’, and frequently as radical as any northern cybergeek or Wired-style entrepreneur. Moreover, they are just as contradictory, diverse and multilingual in the ethics they imagine through these objects: a constant experience in fieldwork is people's ability to articulate simultaneously the official views of ICTs and transformation learned through schools or NGOs and the more radical possibilities imagined through their own social practices. People are always multilingual in their provision of accounts. And it is recognition of this complexity and imaginative capability in people's object relations that needs to be extended from northern digital culture to thinking new media in development and globalization, rather than continuing to try to settle, once and for all, what ICTs ‘really are’ and how they can best be ‘used’ by the people we deign to ‘help’.