Mastering the Split Screen

In October 2003, The New York Times website added a section to its op-ed page featuring editorials from foreign newspapers, particularly those that that deal with American foreign policy. CNN now regularly runs translated clips from the Arab satellite channel al Jazeera. These quiet additions are, in fact, part of a fundamental shift in the way we get information. Thanks to the internet and satellite TV, mass media are no longer geographically limited. Propaganda is propagated beyond national borders on signals that don’t fade as the metropole fades into the distance. We’re all watching each other—and watching the others watch us—in a way that simply would not have been possible only a few years ago.

Still, the last decades’ technological shifts haven’t quite produced a harmonious global village. The ancient Greeks branded as “barbarians” those whose languages sounded to them like “bar bar bar” gibberish, and to many Westerners, foreign scripts still seem to conceal nasty secrets, and spoken gutturals and trills provoke suspicion. In this environment of information whose instant availability is not matched by intelligibility, translators have become some of the most powerful people in our societies, seeming to carry news of secrets being told behind our backs. The more individual streams of information one can understand, the better: The privileged one is not the broadcaster who beams one image outwards to the world, but the all-knowing guard, sitting in front of a closed-circuit TV whose screen flashes 10 images at once.

Al Jazeera has been the master of this split-screen approach for years, but the United States is just now catching up to the rest of the world. Thanks to aggressive British colonialism during the past two centuries, much of the post-colonial world is multilingual—following U.S. news, watching President Bush’s speeches and developing first-hand opinions about America. Much of America, however, remains proudly English-only, especially proud of exporting its media along with its Coca-Cola. We often forget that the world is getting our message all too well—and analyzing it while we sit mesmerized by flashy graphics on Fox News, oblivious to what they have to say. As we begin the twenty-first century we are leaving the era of military omnipotence and entering into the age of journalistic omniscience.

This is not to say that no one in America is aware of the importance of keeping an eye on the rest of the world’s thoughts. In liberal circles, “multinarrativism” is as hip as multiculturalism—but with it comes the same danger that individual identity will be subsumed by generalized, catch-all groupings. Multinarrativism can mean that we listen to stories from Mexico and Jordan and India only to interpret them as national opinions, ignoring the unique voice of the writer. Those who watch al Jazeera know all too well that an isolated clip from CNN can represent—or misrepresent—“America.” And just the same, when an op-ed from Beijing comes to represent China or the Lebanon-based Daily Star equals that entire country, we run the risk of ignoring individual voices and dissenting opinions. When we identify opinions by country alone, we raise up the nation-state above all else and ignore the fact that the writer’s most salient attribute might not be “Malaysian” or “Canadian” but rather “woman” or “worker” or “French-speaking” or “conservative.” In a world reassessing the role and significance of the modern nation-state, we need to be more careful about our categories. Quick glances across oceans might give us a sense of worldliness, but our newspapers and television stations run the risk of obscuring the very thing they seek to understand.

It’s time for us to embrace the split screen and open our eyes to the stories that aren’t our own. This is the only way to compete in the world of cable and cable modems. But if we flip channels too fast, we’ll forget that each picture is in fact a moving image, internally dynamic and colorful. Each of us should take a trip to Out of Town News, one of the oldest and dearest institutions in the Square, look at the pictures in a variety of papers, dredge up the languages we took in high school and then forgot, and—with more than just a superficial glance—begin to make sense of the multivocal multitude of information flowing around our globe.

Liora R. Halperin ’05 is a joint concentrator in history and Near Eastern languages and civilizations in Kirkland House.