COMPUTER ADVOCATES LOVE TO TALK about technology’s ability to foster communication and understanding among people from all cultures, backgrounds and parts of the world, and to unite us all in a single “global village.” By providing a level playing field, in which everyone gets an equal voice, free from biases and stereotypes that arise in face-to-face communication, we can all be heard and empowered?or so the thinking goes. That certainly sounds nice and makes those who work in IT feel good. But it’s also hopelessly naive. The fact is, computers reinforce a culturally specific pattern of thinking?namely, a Western one that marginalizes all others.
Our society believes that technology is culturally neutral?that is, it can be used either mischievously by hackers or generously by people of goodwill, but embodies no values of its own. Whether it’s a computer or a telephone, we tend to believe the technology itself is purely a medium. But is that really the case? Definitely not. Just as the inherent characteristics of a telephone select and amplify certain aspects of interpersonal communication (that is, voice) while eliminating the multiple nonverbal messages integral to face-to-face communication, the inherent characteristics of computers also select certain patterns of personal and cultural experience for amplification?while eliminating others. Much of what gets amplified are aspects of Western culture, partly because so many of the people who design technology are Western, but also because many aspects of alternative mind-sets simply cannot be digitized.
Western people tend to think of themselves as autonomous individuals, separate observers and manipulators of the external world. Other cultures see it differently, such as the Quechua Indians of the Peruvian Andes, who believe that all forms of life are part of a complex web of nurturing relationships, or the Chinese, who believe that identity and responsibility are rooted in family. Most technology, however, supports the Western view by assuming that a single, independent user acts autonomously to make decisions. Westerners also tend to think of language purely as a conduit in a sender-and-receiver process of communication rather than a medium that encodes a vast array of cultural assumptions. Again, technology supports this view by treating language and data as purely objective units of information.
Westerners think of change as constant, linear and progressive (rather than cyclical or even circular, as some other cultures see it), and computers embody the same assumption?witness, for example, the numbering of successive versions (of software or documents) in neatly sequential fashion. Finally, Westerners tend to value sight over the other senses, and so they generally emphasize print over other forms of communication. Once again, IT has been built with the same preferences.
Community is one of the biggest areas in which our Western-minded technologies are selling us short. Our long history of thinking of technology as culturally neutral and our unrelenting drive to keep changing have desensitized us to the importance of many of the ingredients that are essential to morally coherent and mutually supportive communities. TV and computers, for example, have brought on the demise of traditions such as family conversation around the dinner table, and many of us are just now beginning to realize it.
In addition, while there are culturally diverse approaches to community, there is a common set of characteristics that cannot be digitized without being turned into something abstract and devoid of layers of meaning. Examples include patterns of nonverbal communication; spoken narratives that carry forward the moral values of the family and cultural group; mentoring relationships; ceremonies; and interactions with nature.
Take mentoring. It may be possible to have a website that lists the mentors in the community, and it may even be possible to exchange some e-mails with a potential mentor. But that is profoundly different from the emotional richness and life-shaping experience of being mentored in person, with all the verbal and nonverbal aspects that would be involved. Ceremonies that are the center of a cultural group’s sense of community and experience of renewal are also beyond the capacity of computer technology. It may be possible to record such events on videotape, but that description cannot reproduce the experience of the participants.
The result is that online communities are fundamentally different from real ones. They enable people to communicate information with others who share mutual interests, but they lack the depth of meaning, accountability and culturally distinct patterns of moral reciprocity on which real ones depend.
So we’re faced with a tricky double bind. We are becoming increasingly connected with other people through the exchange of information, yet we’re becoming increasingly disconnected from the face-to-face interactions that are the basis of community.
Time to Log Off
So where is it all going? Right now, the future does not look good for cultural diversity, community or the environment, which is threatened by many of the underpinnings of the Western mind-set (see “Turning Green,” April 1, 2000). The challenge is to learn how to develop and use information technology appropriately.
IT people need a broader, more culturally informed education that allows them to understand the cultural ramifications of the technology they create and use. Teachers and the rest of us need to be better educated in recognizing the cultural assumptions underlying IT. Perhaps we should also use technology a little less. Forget the e-mail for a moment, and speak with someone face-to-face instead. Become a mentor, and encourage children to interact with the natural world. Future generations will be glad you did.