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Electronic colonialism (or digital colonialism) theory was first started by Tom McPhail, a Canadian who began his career with Marshall McLuhan. Following a posting with UNESCO in Paris, McPhail wrote a book for SAGE entitled Electronic Colonialism: the Future of International Broadcasting and Communication in 1981. The foreword was written by Everett Rogers. The theory is about the impact on the mind of repeated mass media messages, including commercials, on audiences around the world. Just as earlier colonial institutions, like Great Britain, sought out soil anywhere in the world for colonies, now multimedia giants seek to capture the eyeballs, ears and minds of millions of viewers, readers, or listeners. Disney, MTV, Netflix, Comcast, Hollywood, CNN, BBC, Fox, Google, the Internet, and others—all seek to influence, not by force of arms, but by packaging media to attract large audiences for advertisers around the globe. The mass media over time will impact more and more individuals—primarily using the English language—to become more similar as indigenous films and artifacts become marginalized by a cultural tsunami created by high-quality and mass-produced media messages and systems.
Electronic colonialism theory explains how mass media are leading to a new concept of empire. It will not be one based on military power or land acquisition but one based on controlling the mind. It is a psychological or mental empire. It is an evolving global "Empire of the Mind." The global media are collectively influencing the minds, attitudes, values, and languages of individuals around the globe. It is an electronic mass media driven phenomena which over time will not only expand the frontiers of the multi-national communication firms but will far exceed even the vast reach of the declining, once-great British Empire.
Prime examples of electronic colonialism are the initiatives of Google Inc. The first is to digitize the works of five major US and UK libraries. (The libraries are at Harvard, Stanford, the University of Michigan, Oxford University, and the New York Public Library—all Anglo-Saxon in language (English), history, focus, framing, and orientation. Google will help define the future of knowledge by its vast network power and global platform. The wealth and impact of other, non-English, libraries around the world will be both diminished and marginalized by the Google project. For example, the 600-year-old National Library of France will not contribute to the new data base and thus the 8-year-old-Google suddenly represents a major challenge to France's academic, cultural, and linguistic heritage.
The second example is a 2007 project to personalize Google's search results. Using the search history or pattern used by individuals, Google intends to customize information or thinking patterns to select which results to prioritize for each individual researcher. Google and other internet-based search services are attempting to get into the brains of users to aid in presenting more relevant results based on previous research patterns. Other search firms, such as Microsoft and Yahoo! are also attempting to develop unique algorithms to aid in customizing searches based on user patterns. It is not only the large corporations that are tracking user's'patterns. CenturyTel Inc. of Louisiana, a small telephone company, is also into behavior targeting. Using equipment installed on the phone lines, CenturyTel will collect data about every web site visited and then sell the information to external online advertisers.
All media and communication firms want a big piece of the $17 billion internet advertising market. By chasing more precise and detailed mapping behavior, via an algorithm, they want to deliver "the minds" of internet customers to a growing list of online advertisers.
The theory of electronic colonialism also examines the hegemonic power of the US as it applies to the global cultural industries. This includes the American-centric control of the Internet via ICANN and the expansion of American media and communication empires around the world.
Notes and references
- Internet Health Report (April 2018). Resisting digital colonialism.
- Solon, Olivia (July 27, 2017). 'It's digital colonialism': how Facebook's free internet service has failed its users. The Guardian.
- Electronic Colonialism: The Future of International Broadcasting and Communication. Thomas L. McPhail. Beverly Hills: Sage, 1981
- BBC NEWS | Technology | Google to scan famous libraries
- McLuhan, M. (1964) Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company.
- McPhail, T. (1981) Electronic Colonialism: The Future of International Broadcasting and Communication. Newbury Park: Sage.
- McPhail, T. & McPhail, B. (1990) Communication: The Canadian Experience. Toronto: Copp Clark Pitman.
- McPhail, T. (2002) Global Communication: Theories, Stakeholders, and Trends. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
- McPhail, T. (2014) Global Communication: Theories, Stakeholders, and Trends. (4th ed.) London: Blackwell.
- Raley, R. (2004) eEmpires. Cultural Critique, 57, 111-150.