This week’s readings about development and new media brought up interesting ideas about influence of communication technologies on development, particularly mobile phones. While the papers showed that communication technologies are not necessarily a fix-all solution to development problems and come with drawbacks, it’s undeniable that these technologies have made significantly impacted the way federal agencies, NGOs and other organizations approach development problems. I would argue that for many, new communication technologies have made a positive impact, particularly as they relate to micro financing.
In a nutshell, new media technologies are bridging the gap between the developed world and the developing world, and one way this is happening is through micro financing. Last year, for example, I read a fantastic book called “Half the Sky” about the plights faced by numerous women in the developing world. The authors argued that improved education and economic opportunities could make a huge difference in these women’s lives, and at the end of the book, they listed several websites where you could help finance business loans for women in developing countries. The website Kiva.org, for example, lets you browse through profiles of projects, participate in a “team,” create a profile, etc. It blends the experience of social media with development projects. The site serves as a platform for communication, but it also offers people a way to transmit messages about their values and beliefs through the “teams” option. This type of engagement in development work would never have been possible thirty years ago, but thanks to new media technologies, it’s not only the present, but the way of the future.
Public diplomacy has long been a tool in the arsenal of diplomats, to paraphrase Nye, and it’s easy to see why. Closely intertwined with soft power, it is a strategic way of imparting information about key policies and messages to other countries. The appeal of some forms of public diplomacy are easy to understand – a female U.S. celebrity attending special an embassy event in another country and talking about women’s rights, for example, or a U.S. ambassador sharing a tweet to with thousands of followers. Recently, though, I attended a lecture about a far less obvious form of public diplomacy: moon rocks.
Yep, you read that right. Moon rocks. Now how on earth could a moon rock play an important role in the public diplomacy history of the United States? I was wondering the same thing myself a few weeks ago when I attended a lecture at the National Air and Space Museum about the moon rocks collected during the Apollo missions.
Although it sounds silly today, moon rocks carried a great deal of public diplomacy capital shortly after the Apollo Missions. At the time, a great deal of excitement and curiosity surrounded the rocks, which drew positive attention to the United States. The U.S. prominently displayed a moon rock at the 1970 World Fair in Osaka, Japan, where it was so popular that people would wait between four – seven hours just to see to it. I’m paraphrasing from my memory of the lecture, but one Japanese reporter apparently quipped that the United States needn’t have bothered to display anything else but the moon rock, and that people would have been grateful for the extra space to squeeze to see the aforementioned object. President Nixon also used the moon rocks as a public diplomacy tool. He distributed rice-sized fragments of moon rock to 135 foreign heads of state. The moon rocks were mounted on a wood plaque and looked fairly unimpressive, but this did not diminish their effectiveness as a communication tool. Part of the moon rock’s usefulness as a public diplomacy tool had to do with the scientific achievements that it represented for America and by larger extent, mankind.
While their popularity as public diplomacy tool eventually died, the moon rocks’ unusual legacy poses interesting questions about public diplomacy today. What kinds of public diplomacy tools do we have today, and are they more virtual than physical?
Have you ever seen the movie Shrek? You know, that cartoon featuring Mike Myers as an ogre with a heart of gold and Eddie Murphy as Donkey, his obnoxious-yet-loveable sidekick? If you have seen it, then you’ll be familiar with the classic scene in which Shrek uses an onion as a metaphor for the complex nature of the ogre mentality.
“Ogres are like onions,” he tells a skeptical Donkey. “Ogres have layers.”
You know what else has layers (besides parfaits)? The field of international communication!
Shrek and Donkey welcome your thoughts on international communication.
I know it sounds like a bit of a stretch, but stay with me here and it will all make sense. To borrow a quote from Gary Weaver’s The Evolution of International Communication as a Field of Study: A Personal Reflection, “International Communications is truly interdisciplinary, a mixture of many different areas of academic inquiry.” The field has a theoretical layer rooted in academic research, but it also possesses a practical layer that’s applicable everywhere from international negotiations to international news to NGO activities. There’s a layer of international issues, a layer of domestic issues, and then a whole new layer that looks at how these two issues connect. To take another line from Weaver’s reflection, “International communications allows us to authentically combine all these levels of analysis, to ask the big questions, but also to deal with the individual.”
The layers of the field are also reflected in its contradictory beginnings. On one hand, international communication is almost as old as human civilization itself. Thussu’s “The Historical Context of International Communication and Mattelart’s “The Emergence of Technical Networks” both offer compelling examples of international communication throughout the ages. The ancient empires of Rome, Persia and Greece relied on official postal and dispatch systems, and inventions such as the printing press and the telegraph had considerable impacts on the world.
Given that international communication has effectively been in use for thousands of years, it seems surprising that the field has only recently been recognized as an area of study. American University’s International Communication program is the oldest of its kind in the world. But that’s also what makes it so exciting. As students, we can help chart the future of the field.
Posted by: Kira VK