Culture, Technology, Communication: Towards an Intercultural Global Village
Editor: Charles Ess, Fay Sudweeks
Publisher: Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2001
Review Published: January 2003
Among the many articles of faith brought by contemporary ICTheria is the notion of a new culture taking shape in a cyberspace that would be populated by ethereal creatures belonging only to this new universe. Within such a context, this book is extremely useful in bringing the hot air balloon closer to the ground. Even the dogs that covertly exchange emails, according to a famous cartoon, have a real dog's life, like most other users of the Internet.
The book assembles twelve papers that were presented at the 1st CATaC (Cultural Attitudes Towards Technology and Communication) conference held in London 1998, and organized by Charles Ess and Fay Sudweeks. A foreword by Susan Herring, an extensive introduction by Ess, a rich index (25 pages), and list of contributors' bios complete the work. The change of medium may explain why contributors' email addresses do not appear either in the bios or in the papers. Some papers acknowledge post-conference editing, and a number of them had been published as journal articles, especially in the Electronic Journal of Communication / La Revue Electronique de Communication (volume 8, numbers 3 & 4) in 1998.
The CATaC series of international conferences has now gone through its 3rd iteration -- in Montreal in 2002 and in Perth in 2000. That the printed version of papers presented in 1998 is eventually published in 2001 is one more illustration of the "adjustment" issues in the information industries and other troubles brought by the new information and communication technologies, a problem that, it should be noted, was solved for the following conferences by way of publishing at the source by Murdoch University. Even though the very substance of the papers does not suffer much as a result of this anachronism, mention of events from the past century, and even more Internet use figures of 1997 or earlier, can only raise questions about what might be going on now.
The editors have grouped the papers into three main themes: theoretical approaches; theory and praxis; and cultural collisions. The three papers in the first subset present common characteristics that fit with their label but this is less apparent for the remaining papers. Cultural phenomena and their interpretations are too complex and delicate to conform to simple classifications. Space constraints in a book review can hardly do justice to the variety and richness of individual contributions to conference proceedings. Ess' insightful summary takes no less than ten pages to present an overview of the various chapters.
Steve Jones (USA) explains his concepts of Micropolis and Compunity by way of ritual versus transportation models of communication. Barbara Becker and Joseph Wehner (Germany) examine the variation of the public sphere as shaped by the mass media and the Internet, the latter resembling more a conjunction of spheres for the happy few. In a unique quantitative analysis, Carleen Maitland (Netherlands) and Johannes Bauer (USA) show that in spite of the limitations of international statistics and other intrinsic constraints, it is possible to factor in cultural dimensions. They also offer a case of applying diffusion theory at a large scale and point to key requirements to do so meaningfully.
Herbert Hrachovec (Austria) gives a personal account of the history of three German language electronic discussion lists in philosophy. The relative presence of Swiss local governments on the Internet is analyzed by Lucienne Rey (Switzerland) on the basis of their linguistic base. Interestingly, French speaking areas seem to be more technophilic than their counterparts in France, a trend that could by explained by, among other things, the "dynamics"  between ethnocentrism and cosmopolitanism she points to. Using discussions in a graduate students electronic list, Concetta Stewart, Stella Shields, and Nandini Sen (USA) examine cultural and gender differences in the use of the facility and communication styles; not surprisingly, they found not only differences but also some signs of pressure by the dominant white male subculture.
Deborah Wheeler (USA) provides a contrasted account of gender, social, and religious influences over the use of Internet by Kuwaiti women; her account shows that oppression and its alleviation are not clear-cut issues, especially when seen through the prism of western preconceptions. Lorna Heaton (Canada) examines cultural influences in the design of platforms for computer supported collaborative work in Japan, with special attention to their context sensitivity. Based upon an analysis of the image of the Internet created by newspaper coverage of this subject and interviews with sixteen young Koreans from elementary to high school, Sunny Yoon (Korea) shows the ambiguity of transformations occurring in communication patterns. Reflecting upon a variety of sources, including an earlier survey of attitudes toward electronic communication in Japan, Korea, Singapore, and the USA, Robert Fouser (Japan) ventures to compare the respective practices and attitudes in Japan and Korea with regard to electronic communications. He beautifully shows how the simplistic and mechanistic "explanations" that often prevail, especially in national ICT policies, fall short of providing a clue at the complex social processes at work.
The vexing fate of software localization in India of which Kenneth Keniston (USA) provides an articulate account is yet another illustration of the shortsightedness of macro analyses that oversee cultural factors. It also reminds us that market forces may be effective in finding answers to economic challenges but certainly not to social ones. Soraj Hongladorom's (Thailand) analysis of discussions on soc.culture.thai provides a striking example of the complexity of cultural influences, pointing to the tradeoffs between "thick and thin" attributes and the no less intriguing dynamics between the use of local languages versus English.
Readers who can not satisfy themselves with exclusive technocentric views nor oversimplification of cultural influences will no doubt enjoy this book. At the same time, the various contributions make a strong point in bringing culture, under its various facets, as a key component of any investigation of the social transformations associated with ICTs, while also illustrating how subtle the variations in each factor and in the interplay among them can be. Rather than hastily pushing quick and dirty evidence in support of artificial dichotomies, we should be concerned with acquiring the flair and skills that will allow us to track down and interpret the dialectics of ambivalence  in the forces and representations at play in the shaping of new information and communication practices. CATaC can play a useful role in catalyzing interest for articulating sound cultural perspectives in ICT studies. One can only hope that this effort will assemble a growing number of contributors from various cultures. Even though authors in this volume have obviously a wide international experience, they are in their vast majority from the -- self-proclaimed -- first world. This is by no means a handicap, but the counterpoint that native scholars could provide is probably a requisite for these perspectives we are calling for to achieve their full development.
1. To use the expression coined by Daniel Miller and Don Slater in their book The Internet: An Ethnographic Approach (Berg, 2000).
2. For more on this notion see M. J. Menou & C. Courtright, "The Dialectics of Ambivalence: Helping People Cope with Complexity when Assessing the Impact of ICT," in Rod Carveth, Susan Kretchmer, & Doug Schuler, eds. Shaping the Network Society: Patterns for Participation, Action and Change, pp. 192-197. Seattle, WA. May 16-19, 2002.
Michel J. Menou:
Michel J. Menou has worked since 1966 in some 80 countries on the development of national information policies and systems. Since 1992 his work focused on the impact of information and ICT in development. <Michel.Menou@wanadoo.fr>
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