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Technology in a Multicultural and Global Society

Editor: May Thorseth, Charles Ess
Publisher: Trondheim, Norway: Norwegian University of Science and Technology, 2005
Review Published: December 2009

 REVIEW 1: Delia D. Dumitrica
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Charles Ess and May Thorseth

This book is a result from the conference with the same name, held in November 2003 by the Programme of Applied Ethics, Norwegian University of Science and Technology (and it can be downloaded for free from the programme's website). It consists of seven essays which, according to the editors, "investigate several aspects of [information] technology within a multicultural and global context" (7). Overall, the book may be a useful source of readings for an undergraduate course in the social context of information technologies. While some articles challenge the optimistic hype around information technologies and their role vis-a-vis a global democracy, I felt that the book could have benefited from a more clear direction. In the context of my own interests in the relation between information technologies and ideology, I found some articles lacking a critical engagement with their problematic, and in particular with the theoretical debates on multiculturalism and globalization.

Each of the essays in this book deals with a different topic, which sometimes leaves the reader unsure as to how they connect. Bu Wei's discussion of internet access and use in China provides a statistical portrait of the digital divides in this country. The gendered digital divide -- this time in the Middle East -- is the topic of Deborah E. Wheeler's article. Wheeler argues that statistics may not reveal the true picture about women's engagement with information technologies, and supplements this data with interviews on Arab women's use of the internet. The article remains quite simplistic in my view in terms of its engagement with the intersections of gender and religion, as well as in terms of its summarization of the interviews.

A quite different approach to gender comes from Merete Lie's piece on the methodology of studying the gender gap in the European Union. Lie problematizes the idea of the "divide" beyond merely access and use; examined from the perspective of advanced use and participation in the development of information technologies, the digital divide appears as gendered. Dealing with this gendered digital divide requires a critical perspective, particularly in terms of policy: to move away from further gendering information technologies, public policy needs to avoid taking for granted the idea of a homogeneous category of "women" with particular wants and needs. The author argues that policy makers need to question the homogenizing gender categories of women vs. men, and to work "towards a de-masculinisation and de-dichotomization of technologies and technical professions" (87).

Knut H. Rolland's work on the unintended consequences of information technologies in organizations stands apart from the previous articles. The introduction of such technologies in global organizations presents a variety of challenges; while some can be anticipated, others are unpredictable. These unintended/unpredictable consequences also affect the organization, shaping the behavior of its members and the implementation of its policies on local levels. Unfortunately, Rolland does not elaborate on his case study, which relies on an impressive ethnographic fieldwork.

Dag Elgesem brings to the forefront the problematic of deliberative technology. The article questions the idea of the inner deliberative features of information technologies, engaging primarily with the 2000 European Commission's report Democracy and Information Society in Europe. Elgesem rightfully, in my opinion, points out that one cannot simply assume that deliberative models can be translated online. Echoing Rolland's previous article, Elgesem points out to the important -- and often overlooked -- issue of unintended paths of online applications. Unfortunately, the piece seemed to me to lack on the empirical side: the case study examined is not very detailed, requiring the reader to take the author's characterization of it (for instance, its alleged grass-roots character) for granted.

Co-editor May Thorseth continues the discussion initiated by Elgesem on deliberative democracy via information technologies. Thorseth's thesis rests on the assumption that deliberative democracy is primarily a communicational activity, where communication becomes understood as the unhindered sharing of individual opinions and values. The remainder of the article reflects on whether this unhindered sharing is possible online. Thorseth seems skeptical: although the internet can bypass censorship and provide an accessible platform for the public debate, this in itself is not sufficient to guarantee deliberative democracy. Obstacles such as users' tendency to simplify (and therefore to avoid the multiplicity of opinions available online), private consumption of online content displacing involvement and participation, and an increasing lack of trust in communication are hampering electronic deliberation. Yet, Thorseth argues, even if we remove these obstacles, "it does not follow that there is any obligation to communicate" (133): just because the exchange of opinions is possible, it does not mean people have the obligation to do so. The author does not provide much in terms of a conclusion or of a set of recommendations, beyond emphasizing that electronic deliberation needs to be considered in terms of both possibilities and limitations it brings along. The emphasis on obstacles -- and the ethical challenges they raised -- is certainly important, particularly in the context of an uncritical hype around the "democratic potential" of the internet. In the end of the chapter, I was left wondering to what extent the obstacles outlined -- and, indeed, the understanding of deliberative democracy altogether -- might be different if we look at communication as a co-construction constrained by power relations and ideologies, rather than a negotiation of pre-existing opinions and values.

Further challenging the optimistic rhetoric on computer mediated communication (CMC) as bringing about the global village, co-editor Charles Ess makes the case for thinking about such technologies in terms of the values they embody. CMC is shaped by a Western worldview, but this doesn't mean it cannot be re-shaped by savvy users to fit other cultural values. Such savvy users "are able to pick and choose what elements of both local and larger cultures they wish to appropriate and foster -- thereby constructing new hybrid or third identities that fall between purely local and purely global" (92). Yet, I think the dichotomy local/global requires further discussion: to what extent are the local and the global two opposing poles; how does the discussion change if we regard them instead as the two sides of the same coin; how to escape the homogenizing tendencies of both "local" and "global"? Nonetheless, in raising the question of CMC technologies' relation to global and local dynamics, the chapter emphasizes the need to look for the (local/micro) hybridization practices in our making sense of new technologies. However, the crucial element here is the availability of technical abilities: not everyone can design a software or assemble a hardware. Although Ess doesn't discuss it, the relation between the acquisition of this technical know-how and Western capitalist discourses seems crucial to me. Furthermore, I think it is important to remember that cultural and national identities are not homogeneously given repertoires from which savvy users take what they choose and mix with more global or cosmopolitan values. As Ess himself remarks, "[savvy users] may find little motive for undertaking the hard work of moving beyond simple ethnocentrism to develop the skills required for a savvy online cross-cultural communication that negotiates across sometimes radically different cultural values and communicative preferences" (107).

The papers collected in this volume propose a wide range of perspectives and approaches to information technologies, from the question of access to that of technologically-enabled deliberative democracies. Covering the state of these technologies in various parts of the world, the volume may be useful to those less familiar with the social context of information technologies, introducing them to this field of research. However, with several contributions insufficiently developed in terms of theoretical framework or empirical detail, the volume offers only a few challenging but rather raw ideas. The interesting questions of unintended consequences of information technologies and of the local/global negotiation of the particular ethics embodied by these technologies, especially examined against the common hype around the internet, require more elaboration. Finally, the collection might have benefited from a slightly different title; after reading the book, I was still unsure about the connection between information technology and the "multicultural and global" dimensions of our world.

Delia D. Dumitrica:
Delia D. Dumitrica is a doctoral student in communication with the University of Calgary. Her main research focuses on the role of nationalism in the rhetorical construction of the internet in Canada. She teaches sessionally on the social context of information technologies.  <dddumitr@ucalgary.ca>

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