Review of “Degraded Images, Distorted Sounds: Nigerian Video and the Infrastructure of Piracy” by Brian Larkin

In the article “Degraded Images, Distorted Sounds: Nigerian Video and the Infrastructure of Piracy”, Brian Larkin discusses the matter of media piracy in Nigeria, and its effects on the technological, social, and economic infrastructure of the region, as well as its global effects. Larkin makes us realize just how key a role piracy has played in the development and distribution of media, both legal and illegal through Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Larkin describes this “pirate infrastructure” as “a powerful mediating force that produces new modes of organizing sensory perception, time, space, and economic networks.” (291)

Larkin dictates how the legal global media infrastructure uses new technologies. When reached by other peoples, these technologies create opportunities for new systems to develop and form their own paths. One such system is the piracy network in Nigeria, which has become so enormous that Nigeria is considered now to have two economies, the state-governed, legal economy, and the “shadow economy” which operates outside of the law (297).  These economies often overlap and often oppose one another.  The shadow economy has thrived with mainly the reproduction of Hollywood and Indian films. In recent years, there have been developments in Nigeria of “Hausa” films and Nigerian videos, which are produced legally in Nigeria, but could not be distributed without the technologies already in place from the shadow economy and piracy distribution.

Larkin continues to describe Nigeria as a place reliant on failed technologies and their repair. He explains that globalization has allowed access to new technologies, but the poverty of the nation dictates that the technologies are constantly failing and awaiting restoration. This causes tension, for people are aware of what technologies can do, but grow frustrated as their equipment does not work at full capability.  This also means that the quality of the pirated media decreases as it is copied, causing  “Degraded Images” and “Distorted Sounds.” Seeing as the equipment used to distribute the legal films is the same, these are also poor quality, and viewers adapt to this sort of media. This perception of media “shape[s] the ways these media take on cultural value and act on individuals and groups”(310).

The article gives deep insight into how one media distribution system affects the next, and how that affects people’s perception of media. However, I do not feel as though I fully understand its effect on culture and social function within society. For example, the article spoke about Nigerian society as generally poor. However, this does not imply that everyone in Nigeria is of the same economic status. I would assume that there are class differences within Nigeria, and people higher on the economic spectrum could afford more efficient technologies, and could therefore have access to higher quality media. Seeing as the Nigerian made media is not produced at all in high quality, it would make sense that the upper class remains influenced by only Hollywood and Indian media, for only they can afford to see these without degraded images or distorted sounds. This, I am sure, promotes subcultures within Nigerian society and class differences. However, the article hardly touched upon class differences that are bound to emerge.

Additionally, since the article was written in 2004, technology has developed even further, and as such, modes of piracy have changed. Today in highly developed societies, most piracy takes place on the internet, where illegal websites let viewers stream media for free in very high quality. Perhaps the use of the internet for illegal media consumption has spread to Nigeria, and perhaps that is causing damage to the once thriving pirate economy. Or perhaps the technology to stream videos online has not yet become easily accessible in this area, in which case we may predict a failure of the current Nigerian piracy system in the future. The role that this could have in changing media perception for the people is potentially tremendous. 

The article makes an interesting point about our perception of global media. That is to say that we often think of globalization in terms of media from the developed world spreading to other nations, creating a common “world” culture. It is rarely addressed however, how the media changes as it gets from one place to the next and how those changes in particular effect the perceptions of viewers. For example, we may have considered how the messages of Hollywood movies affect viewers in Nigeria, but we never seem to consider how the poor quality of the footage being viewed in Nigeria sends a message in itself.  Additionally, as Larkin states, we often interpret globalization as nations that “have” and nations that “do not have” but it is not so simple. Larkin explains that even poor countries “have” modern technologies, but do not have the luxury of using these technologies at their full potential. 

Larkin, through the example of piracy infrastructure provides deeper insight to core concepts mentioned in David Croteau, William Hoynes, and Stefania Milan’s Media/Society. The 10th chapter of this book, discusses globalization and “crossing the limits of time and space”(326). The article not only expands on how the use of copying technologies distorts perceptions of time and space, but also on the reality of media globalization in contrast with it’s promise, which in this case is shown as the promise of new technologies in media and the reality of their failure to work at full potential. 

Word Count: 900



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