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Globalisation during the twentieth century


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International Relations

Explain the significance of the advance of media and communications to the process of globalisation during the twentieth century.

The twentieth century saw the speed of technological achievement soaring as the human race innovated and developed quicker than ever before. After the western discovery of the New World in the early modern period there was a great influx of Europeans across the Atlantic seeking out new opportunities and long distance communication became more and more important to remain in contact globally. Technological advances of the twentieth century not only aided this difficult problem, but created a globalised world where vast distances became no feat in ensuring the smooth functioning of life, business and politics.

For example, in 1865, when US President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated it took the news twelve days to travel to the United Kingdom. This delivery required the use of boats to carry the message across the Atlantic and then telegraph to deliver it from Cork in Ireland, to London. One hundred and thirty six years later, on 11th September 2001, there was a terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre in New York. The attack comprised of two planes hitting the two towers with roughly twenty minutes between them. By the time the second plane hit the second tower there was an audience of around two billion who watched the second attack in real time. The technological advances of the twentieth century and the emergence of global media is what made this vast improvement and the development of a global village possible.

Innovators of the nineteenth century had already developed a primitive wired telegraph system which was used as the primary means of communication during this century (obviously other than of course the global standard for millennia - word of mouth). The downside of the telegraph was that whilst it was quicker than anything before, it was still a slow means of communication. The system still required telephone cables and although it was one of the first good examples of clear and more rapid international communication, it lacked the instantaneousness of modern ‘globalised' communication. Another drawback was that it was not until undersea cables were laid in the middle of the twentieth century that telegraphs could be sent across the Atlantic; and by this time other more reliable forms of transatlantic communication had been developed.

It was not until inventors in the twentieth century, such as Marconi, began dabbling with radio signals that the radio telegraph was created. Utilising these newly discovered radio waves in December 1901 Marconi telegraphed the letter ‘S' across the Atlantic from St. Johns in Newfoundland, to Poldhu in Cornwall, a distance of eighteen hundred miles, using kite-born aerials at around one thousand feet. From this point radiotelegraphy took off and became one of the most revolutionary changes in communication in centuries, adopted especially favourably by the armed forces who began using it to communicate between ships which had until then been primarily using homing pigeons and visual signalling. There is difficulty in pinpointing the exact time when radio was first used to communicate human voice as claims are varied. However the first transatlantic human broadcast took place in 1915 with the signal moving first from New York to San Francisco, then to Naval Radio Station NAA at Arlington Virginia and finally from there across the Atlantic Ocean to the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France. By November 1920, the U.S. was operating a daily broadcast of scheduled radio programs, with the first being the 1920 U.S. Presidential election results.

The importance of this history of radio is to first demonstrate the speed at which radio was developed, but more importantly to illustrate that by the 1920s human voices could be transmitted across oceans to communicate with what less than two hundred years ago would be near isolated countries. Not only this but the broadcast of the 1920 election results was arguably the first example of radio being used as a form of media, to publicize political news to the wider world. Throughout the next eighty years radio improved dramatically, including the introduction of FM (standing for frequency modulation - the technology used) which controlled static to give a high-fidelity sound. In 1954 Sony produced the world's first transistor radio, bringing to the world a revolutionary new step where radios became cheaper and by the latter half of the century the majority of the population of western nations owned one.

Radio was not the only method for the broadcast of human voice, indeed the more direct, one-to-one method of communicating over long distances was the telephone. According to AT&T, one of the leading telecommunications companies in the United States, by 1904, right at the beginning of the twentieth century, there were already over three million connected phones in the United States. The design and technological improvements increased throughout the twentieth century allowing people across the globe to talk directly in real time (this also laid the groundwork for later developments in computer networking). The improvements aided globalisation to an incredible degree by allowing business and social interaction to take place not in the form of a letter sent and taking days or even weeks to arrive, but instantaneously. The merging of this technology with the concept of two-way radios created after the invention of the radio led to the development of the mobile phone. The military were primary users of the concept throughout the early twentieth century but it was not until the 1950s that mobile phones became practical, and not until the last decade of the century that the pocket mobile phone became commonplace. Communication over long distance, and indeed globally, was then possible from anywhere on the earth (or at least where signal was found, which by the end of the century covered most places in almost all countries across the world.

One of the next important innovations of the twentieth century was the invention of the television. By the mid 1920s inventors on both sides of the Atlantic were working on capturing, transmitting and receiving live images, with pioneers such as Scottish inventor John Logie Baird (famous for his original mechanical television set) and Americans Philo Farnsworth and Vladimir Zworykin (who were focussed on all electric units using cathode ray tubes). Regularly scheduled television broadcasts began in the late 1920s in the United States and throughout many other western nations by the 1930s, but it was not really until the 1950s that televisions entered the average home. By this time mechanical televisions had been made obsolete in favour of the higher definition image produced by the newer purely electronic devices. Programming focussed around films and live dramas which dominated household entertainment across the world by the 1960s; first in monochrome, and eventually, during the fifties and sixties, in full colour.

Despite the arguably slow start for television in the latter half of the twentieth century television became the single most important form of entertainment and media in the majority of the developed world. The majority of news throughout Europe and North America especially was delivered via the television and towards the end of the century broadcasts were running twenty four hours a day, seven days a week. In 1963 the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson's succession gained four days of coverage, whereas the U.S. moon landing in 1969 was reputedly viewed by 94% of American television homes. It is almost impossible to debate that by the end of the twentieth century television was the dominant form of media in the western world, with a reported ninety nine percent of households owning at least one television and with an average of nearly seven hours exposure a day, much of it based on global issues, events and information. This exposure has created a population which is more informed about the world around them than ever before, and due to the simplicity and lack of necessary engagement or effort it appeals to almost everyone.

Television has also seen the growth of film and scripted television shows. Hollywood dominates the global film and television market with its programming shown throughout the entire world, and although there are many national groups vying for a share in the highly profitable industry, there is no comparison to their American counterpart. As stated by Sinclair, Jacka and Cunningham Hollywood has established itself as the ‘international best practice', and as stated by Mooney and Evans ‘Wherever you go in the world people know of Mickey Mouse, Star Wars and Rambo.'. The films produced by Hollywood are globally known, and despite a delay between release dates in the U.S. and the rest of the world they are available no matter where you are on the earth. This demonstrates vast improvement even from the beginning of the century where by no means every country even had the technology to play films and television created in the United States.

Another noticeable effect of television and film on globalisation is the merging of cultures. Whereas in centuries previous there was little or no real exposure to foreign cultures other than actually visiting them the television in the twentieth century has brought thousands of different cultures into the living rooms of billions in the world. Language, clothing, design and rituals have been adopted and adapted in many societies leading to hybrid creations and entirely new cultures coming into existence. New cultures share elements from existing ones, taking specific traits and altering them to fit their own lifestyle or geography - another key illustration of the globalised world.

Aided by the growth in technology throughout the century the mass media has grown to become one of the single most important forces of globalisation. News groups and organisations such as Reuters and the BBC have thousands of people stationed throughout the world keeping their finger on the pulse and ensuring that the rest of the world is up to date to the minute with the events throughout the globe. Not only making it easier to hear about global events, the mass media has ensured that ever minor world events receive some coverage and consequently the world feels much more united. No longer is the news purely built around the happenings in North America and Europe (although to a degree this news does gain the majority of coverage), every crisis or affair throughout the third world is reported to the rest of the humanity.

Perhaps the single most important and revolutionary development of the century was the creation of the computer and the worldwide network known as the Internet. The computer had been in development since the 1940s with individuals and teams across the world developing faster computers with more processing power. Yet it wasn't until the 1980s where personal computers for use in the home became practical, and not for nearly another decade before they were economical. However by the 1990s computers were owned in millions of homes across the world, increasing more and more throughout the last decade of the century. The attribute of computers that really aided the globalisation process however was networking and the internet. By connecting the computers of the world together using the existing telephone network (and later fibre optics) there was an immediate and permanent connection between all computers on the planet. Information could be transferred instantly across the entire span of the world in milliseconds. As well as this, with developments in wireless technology internet access could be achieved almost anywhere mobile signal was found.

In its original design, the precursor to the Internet, ARPANET, was designed as a system for the military and universities to share information, but it quickly grew in usage and spread to the wider civilian community. The effect of the internet on media was revolutionary. Photos, videos and stories could be uploaded to news sites instantaneously from anywhere in the world. More fundamentally however was that the internet created journalists out of anyone willing to contribute. Due to the freedom and lack control over what could or could not be shared over the internet (a fundamental value of the internet community, which has to an extent been taken advantage of with the ability to pirate information) anyone wanting to publish a story or report on an event was fully capable of doing so and have the chance to have the entire world read it. Consequently news reporting became a more mass project than ever before with even the potential for less influence from biased sources. By the end of the century millions of people were actively reporting news on the internet and millions more turned to the independent news sources instead of the mainstream media.

The Internet has also continued the trends set by television and film, allowing people across the world to get hold of and view television shows and films that they would never have had the chance to obtain beforehand. Similarly, literature, essays and reports are found in the billions online where they can be accessed from anywhere. In this way it can be said that the internet truly revolutionised information, allowing it to be accessed anywhere by anyone, and although this may not be true in all countries (some governments choose to limit and censor the content of the internet in their own territory) there is a level of freedom and globalisation that has never been seen before.

The key importance of the advance of communications technology and media throughout the twentieth century has been its significance in creating a global village and its major role in the process of globalisation. As outlined, the growth of technology in communication has meant that society has advanced from its sluggish pace at the beginning of the twentieth century, to the instantaneous speed of the 1990s. As well as this the content of communications has improved allowing massive amounts of data to be sent in an instant as opposed to a short letter. Media coverage of the entire globe in real time makes keeping the world updated entirely simple and the number of people reporting has meant that the ‘official' news sources are not always the first to report a story. Most importantly however these advances have created an infinitely smaller world where oceans and vast distances between countries do not eliminate the need or desire to know about them or communicate with them, to the point where nations are closer than ever at a civilian level, not just politically.



Giddens, A., ‘Sociology, 6th ed.' (Polity: Cambridge, 2009)

Mooney, A., Evans, B., ‘Globalization, The Key Concepts' (Routledge: London, 2007)

Sinclair, J., Jacka, E., Cunningham, S., ‘New Patterns in Global Television: Peripheral Vision' (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1996)

Winston, B., ‘Media, Technology and Society A History: From the Telegraph to the Internet' (Routledge: London, 1998)


About.com, ‘The Invention of the Radio', http://inventors.about.com/od/rstartinventions/a/radio.htm accessed January 19th 2010

AT&T, ‘AT&T: A Brief History: Origins', http://www.corp.att.com/history/history1.html, accessed January 19th 2010

GSM World, ‘GSM Coverage Map', http://www.gsmworld.com/roaming/gsminfo/index.shtml accessed January 19th 2010

ThinkQuest, ‘Television: The History', http://library.thinkquest.org/18764/television/history.html, accessed 19th January 2010

‘Television & Health', http://www.csun.edu/science/health/docs/tv&health.html, accessed 20th January 2010

Giddens, A., ‘Sociology, 6th ed.' (Polity: Cambridge, 2009) Ch. 17 ‘The Media' pg.723


Winston, B., ‘Media, Technology and Society A History: From the Telegraph to the Internet' (Routledge: London, 1998) pg. 272

‘The Invention of the Radio', About.com, http://inventors.about.com/od/rstartinventions/a/radio.htm accessed 19th January 2010



‘The Invention of the Radio', About.com, http://inventors.about.com/od/rstartinventions/a/radio.htm accessed 19th January 2010

‘AT&T: A Brief History: Origins', http://www.corp.att.com/history/history1.html, accessed 19th January 2010

‘GSM Coverage Map', http://www.gsmworld.com/roaming/gsminfo/index.shtml accessed 19th January 2010

‘Television: The History', http://library.thinkquest.org/18764/television/history.html, accessed 19th January 2010

‘Television & Health', http://www.csun.edu/science/health/docs/tv&health.html, accessed 20th January 2010

Sinclair, J., Jacka, E., Cunningham, S., ‘New Patterns in Global Television: Peripheral Vision' (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1996) pg. 13

Mooney, A., Evans, B., ‘Globalization, The Key Concepts' (Routledge: London, 2007) pg. 111

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