eColonialism Theory: How Trends are Changing the World

By Thomas L. McPhail

In this information age, new trends and ways of doing things have changed dramatically. From work, to school, to entertainment and elsewhere the e-world is the new normal across Western nations. Just as the previous era of the industrial age had profound effects on the social and geographic order –think colonization—now the communication/media enterprises are doing the same restructuring of life, work, and the social order. Below, Thomas L. McPhail articulates a new theory which aims to frame the underlying forces and consequences of major structural changes on a global scale. It is electronic colonialism theory (ect).


Vasco da Gama, the Portuguese explorer, was the first European to venture to India in 1498 and set a precedent and new stage of colonization. The British quickly seized on the concept, utilizing their superior naval power to create a broadly based British Commonwealth. Spain, France, the Netherlands, and others quickly followed suit. The explorers’ goals were essentially three-fold. First was to acquire assets not readily available in the European home-land. These assets were land, spices, cotton, coal, rubber, lumber, gold, diamonds, silk, and more. The second goal was to have a captive market for finished products produced in the mills and plants of the home-land. The third was the prestige of having a number of colonies. The colonizers sought the toil of the work-force in fields, mines, forests, and elsewhere. This created the platform for the Industrial Revolution.

Today, with decolonization taking place after World War 2, we have a new revolution. The cast is broad but names such as Bill Gates of Microsoft, Steve Jobs of Apple, Hewlett and Packard, IBM, Bell Labs, as well as the internet, Google, Yahoo, Amazon, Facebook, twitter, and others, collectively have changed the ways we do things as well as how we think and act. This Information Revolution has created a new need for a theory which captures the new reality and helps explain what is taking place. To a large extent that is what eColonialism is about.

The two major changes were the rise of nationalism and decolonization, centered mainly in developing nations, and the shift to a service-based information economy among core industrialized nations. The information economy relies substantially on cable, satellites, telecommunications, and computer technology to analyze, transfer, store, and communicate information.

Electronic colonialism represents the dependent relationship of poorer regions on the post-industrial nations which is caused and established by the importation of communication hardware and foreign-produced software, along with engineers, technicians, and related information protocols. These establish a set of foreign norms, values, and expectations that, to varying degrees, alter domestic cultures, languages, habits, values, and the socialization process itself. From comic books to movies; computers to fax machines; CDs, DVDs, and smartphones to the Internet, a wide range of information technologies make it easy to send and thus receive information. But most of the information is not of an indigenous nature in terms of content.

The issue of how much imported material the receiver retains is critical. The concern is that this new foreign information, frequently favoring the English language, will cause the displacement, rejection, alteration, or forgetting of native or indigenous customs, domestic messages, or cultural traditions and history. Now poorer regions fear electronic colonialism as much as, perhaps even more, than they feared the mercantile colonialism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Whereas mercantile colonialism sought to control cheap labor and utilize the hands of laborers, electronic colonialism seeks to influence and control the mind. It is aimed at influencing attitudes, desires, beliefs, lifestyles, and consumer behavior. As the citizens of less developed or peripheral nations are increasingly viewed through the prism of consumerism, influencing and controlling their values, habits, and purchasing patterns becomes increasingly important to multinational firms.

When viewers watch the television show Baywatch, they vicariously learn about Western society and mores. Baywatch, which began in 1989, hit a peak in the mid-1990s when more than one billion people a week in nearly 150 countries viewed it. Another example is The Simpsons, the longest-running prime-time animated cartoon show ever developed. The show has now surpassed 300 episodes and is widely distributed around the globe. The show and characters thrive on portraying distasteful aspects of US life, culture, education, and community. Yet the program has been so successful that not only does it continue, but it has also spawned other weekly animation shows such as South Park. Electronic colonialism theory details the possible long-term consequences of exposure to these media images and messages to extend the powerful multinational media empires’ markets, power, and influence.

Not surprisingly, the recent rise of nationalism in many areas of the world seeks to counter these neo-colonialist effects. Many of these newer nations are former colonies of European powers. Their goal is to maintain political, economic, and cultural control of their own history, images, and national destiny. For example, issues that concern both developing nations and the industrial ones, and frequently find them on opposing sides, are the performance and role of international wire services, global television networks, advertising agencies, and the Internet.

There is also a down-side to all this change basically created by the marriage of the internet to the global telecommunications infrastructure. The “gold-standard” of the down-side now is the US’s Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Created after 9/11, it was granted enormous power to collect data from phones, e-mails, internet usage, and other areas as well. In June, 2013 Edward Snowden revealed that the US’s National Security Agency (NSA) was spying on Americans, foreign leaders, heads of UN agencies, private companies, and others in staggering numbers without regard to any laws or the basic right to privacy. To NSA the famed US Constitution did not apply to them or their activities. Freedoms were over-looked repeatedly. Yet all the data gathering has not stopped a single terrorist attack but has clearly damaged the image of the US Federal Government at home and abroad. Cybersecurity databases exit in a number of intelligence agencies, both in the US and Europe, and likely Japan, China, and Russia. The likes of the CIA, NSA, FBI, and in Britain MI-5 need to be brought under control in the public interest. That is what Snowden wanted all along and why he is a hero to a global audience. (For further details and see “We Need Real Protection from the NSA” USA Today, January 16, 2014, page 8A. It was written by five American former intelligence professionals. They outline what 15 reforms are necessary)

History of Electronic Colonialism Theory

Prior to World War I, when international communication consisted primarily of mail, some newspapers were crossing national borders, as was limited electronic communication, which was a mixture of wireless and telegraph systems using Morse code. There was no international communication theory.

It was only after the end of World War II in 1945 that there was substantial international expansion of the mass media and trans-border activities involving communication as well as cultural products. Global advertising also became a growth area.

During the 1980s, under the philosophical mantra of US President Ronald Reagan, a new era of privatization, liberalization, and deregulation not only took hold in North America, but also across Europe, strongly promoted by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom. There was a significant emphasis on market forces, free enterprise, and entrepreneurship, and a strong reversal of any type of sympathy or support for non-commercial media, government regulation, or public ownership of telecommunication systems. Market forces also led to a flurry of mergers and acquisitions across the communication sector. Consolidation created global giants and this trend continues. In 2004 WPP, a British-based advertising firm, purchased the US-based Grey Global and Sony of Japan bought MGM. One new global player deserves to be singled out – Ted Turner created a satellite-delivered all news network, Cable News Network (CNN), in 1980, which would come to alter global news, as well as other broadcasting practices, significantly.

Much of the dominance, players, and conflicting positions that occurred since the middle of the twentieth century have been documented in my 1981 work entitled Electronic Colonialism: The Future of International Broadcasting and Communication. This early work, along with the first edition of Global Communication, documented and expanded the literature about international communication. Collectively these two seminal works laid the groundwork and further amplified the theory of electronic colonialism. It is this theory to which we now turn and add additional insights.

ECT focuses on how global media systems influence how people look, think, and act. The aim of ECT is to account for how the mass media influences the mind.

What is Electronic Colonialism Theory (ECT)?

Just as mercantile colonialism focused on empires seeking the toil and soil of others, frequently as colonies, so now ECT looks at how to capture the minds and, to some extent, the consumer habits of others. ECT focuses on how global media systems, including advertising, influence how people look, think, and act. The aim of ECT is to account for how the mass media influences the mind. Just as the era of the industrial revolution focused on manual labor, raw materials, and then finished products, so also the digitally based information revolution now seeks to focus on the role and consequences concerning the mind, global consumer behavior, and the structural changes across many aspects of life.

Consider how culture is conveyed in a multimedia world. Historically books, grandparents, and tribal elders played a central role in recreating, transmitting, and transferring culture. They relied on oral communication along with family, community, or tribal connections. Culture is basically an attitude; it is also learned. It is the learning of shared language and perceptions that are incorporated in the mind through education, repetition, ritual, family, history, media, or mimicking. In terms of the media’s expanding role here are a few examples. Examples of media systems that attract heavy users are Hollywood movies, MTV, ESPN, soap operas, CNN, the Internet, and video games. These systems tend to be the output of global communication giants, such as Time Warner, Disney, Viacom, Sony, and News Corp. Collectively they have the real potential to displace or alter previous cultural values, language, lifestyles or habits, activities, and family rituals. This is particularly true for heavy users of one or two external media. Over time, Ecolonialism theory states that these changes can and usually do impact friends, family, and community ties. A virtual community of new friends who share two things replace: first, a preoccupation with identical media, such as MTV, talk radio, Facebook, Twitter, or Al-Jazeera; and, second, the embedded media culture that involves new or different messages, perceptions, learning, and habits. An example of this is the new subculture of black slang. It is at the core of the new media-induced culture for this group. Rap music, movies, concerts, dress, and playgrounds repeat and reinforce this niche linguistic and dress trend. For foreign nations this frequently represent a tidal wave of media swamping indigenous cultures.

The socialization process is hijacked by the media empires rather than the colonial empires of days gone by. It is as if we have moved with modernization from a tribal state where culture was located in a fixed territory, region, or nation to a mediated state of mind where we might have more in common with someone or some group halfway around the world via social media or MTV, or ESPN, rather than in our own house, school, or neighborhood.

Now with ECT a new culture has emerged that is a global phenomenon driven primarily by large multimedia conglomerates. They control, reproduce, and spread the global flow of words, images, and sounds. They seek to impact the audiences’ minds without regard to geography. Their audiovisual products become sold and standardized without regard to time or space. They are marketed to international consumers who come to view their world outlook and buying habits as the logical outcome of a new media culture, as outlined and identified by ECT. For example, many Hollywood films and DVD sales now make more revenue outside the United States than at home, while MTV, Disney, Apple, Microsoft, and Google have more aggressive expansion plans outside the United States than within it. IBM is a good example. Over 70 percent of all IBM employees work and live outside the United States. For many conglomerates the US domestic market is saturated, just like across Europe, and thus offshore sales, audiences, consumers – that is, expansion – is a logical trend that is enabled and explained by the phenomenon of ECT. The leading international communication giants describe themselves as global companies and not US, European, or Japanese companies. Their corporate strategic plans all focus on expanding global markets and on developing products and services for international consumption. They position themselves as stakeholders, beneficiaries, and advocates of the global economy. They are the foot-soldiers of electronic colonialism.

The Future of ect

Will the theory gain additional traction over time? Three factors will likely expand the phenomena of ect.

The first is the simple power of Hollywood to dominate movie screens around the world. Hollywood is in a class by itself when it comes to productions and costs. It does so to gain global audiences. Consider the following production budgets: Pirates of the Caribbean, $300 million, Spiderman, $258 million and it grossed $900 globally, Harry Potter, $250 million, The Avengers, $220 million. The studios then add on marketing and advertising of about $50 million. In most countries of the world $50 million is even more than they spend on a single film.

The second factor is the power and success on international advertising agencies, working for multi-national corporations. The largest firms in the world are all based in Europe, Japan, or the United States. Some of them are a new joint venture combining Omnicom (USA) with Publicis (France), WPP Group (United Kingdom), Interpublic Group (USA), and Dentsu (Japan). They offer a very wide range of services and have offices all over the world. They clearly promote a consumer mentality and back it up with cutting edge research. They are another powerful cohort pushing ect.

The third factor is the ability to collect significant amounts of data on the purchases, tastes, values, preferences, and track internet usage as well. Netflix has a secret algorithm which predicts future movie rentals. Consider a 2014 move by Amazon. It applied for a patent dealing with the concept of anticipatory shipping. Basically based on their vast data base and shopping habits, the company now maintains that it can predict, using a complex algorithm, what items a customer is likely to buy, even before the customer knows it. Amazon then ships the item to a closer distribution point and waits for an actual order.

In sum, the theory of ecolonialism will continue to spread as modernization moves more and more nations to become part of the consumer society. Powerful and expanding communication/media multi-national corporations need audiences and a larger commercial foot-print. As noted authority, Michael Wolff points out in USA Today: “… it is a sign of the globalization of media behavior and rules.” He continues, “They are an international business that is no longer contained by separate markets or local regulation. They, too, have a set of international stands and skills.” (Jan. 25, 2014, pg. B1). The media industry of old has transformed itself into a global juggernaut, where the new digital as well as mobile world is the reality.

About the Author

Dr. Thomas McPhail is a professor of Media Studies and a Fellow in the Center for International Studies at the University of Missouri. He serves as a media analyst for a number of global media outlets. Recently he published the fourth edition of Global Communication: Theories, Stakeholders, and Trends (UK: Wiley Blackwell, 2014). It is being translated into Chinese and Arabic. Excerpts from the new edition appear in this article.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The World Financial Review.