|Global Networks and Local Values|
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The interaction between global networks and local cultures is clearly an important dimension of the study of global networks and local values generally. Both "culture" and "values" are terms with a number of meanings. Culture and values are obviously not entirely independent of one another. Values are embedded in cultures and, to a certain extent, derive from those cultures. At the same time, values are part of the glue that gives the culture cohesion and identity. Chapter 3 discusses the term "values" in some depth; this chapter takes on the same task with respect to culture.
Other chapters in this report have dealt with local differences on such matters as privacy, pornography, and hate speech--subjects that can properly be viewed as manifestations of local cultural differences. Not only do different cultures attach different weights or varying levels of importance to each of these issues, but they even give alternative meanings to the terms we use to identify them. These differences then affect the social, political, and legal tools that each society is willing to employ in dealing with the issues' challenges.
In this area perhaps more than any other, the limitation imposed by focusing this study on two nations that are more alike than different becomes obvious. As the introduction to this report points out, although there are a number of differences between American and German cultures, in the context of the world's overall cultural diversity they are quite similar. Both are modern and wealthy nation states with strong, technologically based market economies and highly educated populations. Each has been strongly influenced by Western European history and tradition (a significant, though now-decreasing, fraction of the U.S. population traces its family origin to Germany) and they have comparable distributions of religious affiliations among their people. They also share an alphabet, and their languages are closely related.
In contrast, most people elsewhere in the world live in cultural settings far different from those of the United States or Germany. Their differences make clear that the introduction of global networks in many of those settings challenges, and is challenged by, a variety of local cultural values that are not relevant to the American or German cases.
The committee was thus faced with a dilemma: to ignore a topic of obvious relevance to the study generally because it could not be explored adequately within the limited framework of U.S. and German culture, or, at least for this chapter, to remove that geographical constraint in order to address the broader issues. The committee chose the latter course, arguing that in this, the penultimate chapter of the report, it is reasonable to highlight some questions that might well be explored more comprehensively in a later study by a committee with a far broader range of regional expertise than the present one. Thus, what follows should be viewed as an introduction to the range of issues that need to be considered in assessing the potential cultural impacts of global networks.
"Culture" is a term with many meanings. It covers art, literature, and music; it refers to various dimensions of identity, including the linguistic, national, local, ethnic, and religious; it is sometimes described in terms of social solidarities or epistemic connections, which run the gamut from single-issue interests to professional occupation; and it depends on level of education, social and professional status, and age. Culture is also a moving target, affected by economic, social, political, and technological changes, even as it affects each of them. Global networks are clearly one of those changes, but it would be a major challenge to separate out this one factor from the many others associated with globalization that are also bringing about cultural evolution.
Anthropologists, sociologists, historians, and economists have written much about the dynamics of technological change, with most rejecting a rigid technological determinism. They instead emphasize that transformations over time result from interactions between new technologies and the existing social and economic circumstances.1 To interpret these interactions, cultural theorists have given us a certain structure that categorizes cultural patterns according to "social solidarities."2 This provides some insight into not only the nature of the interactions between technologies and cultures, but also the limitations on how far the former can go in altering the latter. Although such writings provide a framework for analyzing the interaction of global networks and local cultures, they also make clear that the analysis must be approached comprehensively if it is to advance our understanding.
Looming large among these questions to be considered is the specter of cultural hegemony--the concern of many that the architecture and software of global networks so strongly reflect the language, values, and interests of the United States that other cultures will be either disadvantaged or displaced as these networks exert an ever-increasing influence not only on the language of commerce and discourse, but on community hierarchy and organization, business style, education, and entertainment programming as well.
There are many other questions as well. Some have suggested that class cultural differences within societies may be more significant than differences between societies in assessing the effects of global networks. On the other hand, age differences may be more telling than either class or nationality. Or, perhaps, as others have suggested,3 the Internet in and of itself may be giving rise to a new culture, relatively homogeneous in its values, and quite distinct from the local cultures in which its members are otherwise embedded.
From still another perspective, we need to be able to distinguish transient effects from long-term consequences. To what extent do cultural factors merely have an effect in the short term--say, in slowing the adoption of or accommodation to global networks--and to what extent do they influence or entail permanent cultural changes? And of course, how much are particular cultures economically or politically disadvantaged relative to others in the short or long term?
The sections that follow provide some amplification of these issues, based on discussions that took place during the committee's deliberations.
The very essence of global networks is the power they give individuals to participate actively, either as providers or recipients of information. Low cost of entry, wide penetration of networks, and the transparency of Web-browsing software all contribute to this characteristic. In principle, any individual or group can easily distribute information to a seemingly unlimited audience, and at minimal cost. Also in principle, anyone can select--or block--information from the vast universe of sources available throughout the world.
But the practical reality is somewhat different. Networks provide an infrastructure whose actual characteristics are determined as much by which people and groups use and design them as by their innate potential. When one group or nation constitutes a significant, even dominant, fraction of the users and providers, then the network's hardware and software--"the code," to use Lawrence Lessig's term4 --and the preponderance of its available information, are likely to reflect the culture of that group or nation.
The language used on Web sites is clearly one measure of this kind of dominance, and indeed, a very large fraction of all Web sites use English. In a world of networked communication, language takes on an importance even greater than that in broadcast or entertainment media because it affects not only how well one can understand what is said or written but how effectively one can communicate. Language in that sense is a form of power, and thus the requirement that one communicate in an unfamiliar language is, effectively, a restriction on freedom of speech.
Those who raise the issue of cultural hegemony point out that the effect could go even deeper. With native speakers of English being the single largest linguistic group of network users,5 market considerations dictate that a large fraction of the software written for use in conjunction with networks will also be developed in English. At present, for example, it is estimated that American companies develop about 80 percent of packaged software. Thus, English is the language not only of communication but also of programming. Further, there is more impetus to focus on digital coding for the Roman alphabet, and such programs are likely to be more effective than coding for other alphabets. As a result, those techniques that increase the efficiency of Web and document searches, transmission rates, and the like will be better developed for the Roman alphabet and the English language than for other modes of written communication.
With the disproportionate representation of one language and culture driving both the creation of and the market for operating systems, databases, other reference materials, digital music, advertising, e-business, and the range of services, the fear is that the content available on global networks will primarily reflect that one culture. To the extent that the Internet, through its efficiency and ubiquity, begins to dominate the social and intellectual life of a community or nation, this would be tantamount to cultural hegemony. If technological path dependence reinforces this pattern, the hegemony could be long lasting.
How realistic are the fears? With respect to the Western industrial nations, it appears that they are overdrawn. Although a snapshot of the present situation does, indeed, reveal the overwhelming dominance of the English language and American content globally, there is little evidence that other languages and cultures are being displaced now or are likely to be so in the future. In a de facto sense, language zones have already been created in many parts of the developed world. Most German, French, and Japanese computer and Internet users can conduct all of their day-to-day activities in their native languages, as content providers have already translated information for local usage. Furthermore, space for new, culturally localized content is virtually unlimited; it can and will be added as the penetration of networks and computers continues in the countries of the industrialized world. The growth in the flow of bits may introduce information traffic problems, but existing content will not necessarily have priority over new content.6
Similarly, there is no overwhelming technical barrier to the localization of software, even when it has not been written specifically for a given region.7 The major software firms separate the source code of programming languages, operating systems, and applications from linguistically and culturally specific elements in order to allow them to be adapted to local circumstances.
There is no reason to think that such adaptation will be difficult. The cultural barriers to applying information technology in a variety of everyday activities in developed nations appear to be modest. Although neither computer hardware and software nor networks have, in fact, spread through most other industrial societies to the extent that they have in the United States,8 they appear to have been widely accepted. Indeed, in some respects, other nations have led the United States in using information technology in everyday life.
For example, in 1981 France deployed Minitel, a national videotext system using telephone lines, to send text and graphics from mainframe computers to home terminals. By the late 1990s, Minitel had 15 million users, or about 25 percent of the French population. They use it for applications ranging from personal ads and pornography to online banking, travel services, and directory assistance--all with online billing (charges are added to a user's phone bill). Furthermore, because Minitel is a "pay-by-the-minute" service, some analysts argue that the transition from Minitel to the Internet will be "gentler" for Minitel users than the transition for most Internet users from "free" content to "for-pay" content.9
Thus it appears likely that the use of information networks will reflect local values rather than replace them wholesale with foreign ones. To be sure, they will provide a quite-new medium for the expression of those values, much as electronic "chat rooms" have replaced community-center meetings and electronic auctions have replaced weekend antique-hunting expeditions for some people in the United States. The new forms will not necessarily look like the old ones but will clearly be influenced by them, and the result will be new patterns of interaction and new cultural forms that are less indicative of cultural hegemony than of cultural evolution.
The e-commerce approaches currently being adopted only reinforce these conclusions. A key element in the strategy of most firms has been to attract prospective customers and to earn their loyalty by providing them with free products and services of interest, and then to use the attention--and potential loyalty--thus garnered to market other products and services.10 Clearly, this requires sensitivity and responsiveness on the part of e-firms to the cultures of the people whose attention the e-firms are trying to attract.
The situation is far more complex in the developing world, which itself is hardly homogeneous. In the newly industrialized countries of East Asia, economic globalization is considered a key to development; rather than being seen as a threat to local culture, global networks are considered a tool that will be advantageous for those societies. Moreover, Asian leaders have often argued that their hierarchical societal structures facilitate the kind of educational system and disciplined behavior that make rapid adaptation of new technology relatively easy, without leading to social disruption or undesired changes in cultural values.
The city-state of Singapore advertises itself as the most computerized and networked nation in the world. The homogenizing influence of the Internet is of little concern because Singapore is already an extremely homogeneous society that has served as a major regional financial center and home to multinational corporations for years. Its authoritarian government has apparently been successful in convincing its population that accepting the imposition of tight discipline is the price of prosperity. In such a society, heavy-handed measures can be used to control undesired public manifestations of foreign cultural influences.
China has undertaken the ambitious Golden Bridge project to provide broadband networks throughout the densely populated regions of the east and south of the country. Fiber-optic backbones, microwave intermediate transmission, and local wired distribution systems are being complemented by the development of multimedia software and the training of end users to build a network-based economy. The official, centrally defined standardizations of the written Chinese language--its ideographs--and the ways of entering them from a keyboard are making it possible to rapidly adapt Western software as well. (Major U.S. software vendors are also seeking to customize their software for users whose first written language is Chinese.) Indeed, the reinforcement of language standardization, which is a by-product of information networks, is consistent with China's cultural agenda.
Both Singapore and China have, of course, sought to exploit the use of networks in support of their economies while, at the same time, preventing the distribution of other kinds of information and programming to their people. Their concern is a political rather than a cultural one: preventing information networks from being used to encourage and enable organized opposition to government authority.
In the long run, it is likely to be impossible to achieve that goal. The technical structure of the Internet makes it relatively simple to track the flow of information from one node to another, but interdicting that flow is relatively difficult. Although it is possible to block certain Web sites or groups of Web sites--even all of the material originating from a certain country--the ever-changing array of mirror sites, domain names, host service providers, and transmission routes makes for a constantly moving target and an increasingly challenging task, as Chinese authorities have discovered.11
Therefore, rather than being able to use the relatively benign (because essentially invisible) tool of preventing "undesirable" information distribution, governments must use the more heavy-handed approach of sanction and punishment after the fact to discourage further distributions. But as the density of network nodes and the bandwidth of transmission lines increases, the likelihood of "leakage" becomes greater and the sanctions necessary to discourage it must be made increasingly severe. The practical problem, which seems all but impossible to surmount, has become that of preventing the severity of the sanctions from becoming the very destabilizing force that the governments had sought to avoid through the control of information flow. Chapters 5 and 6, which deal with freedom of speech and privacy, respectively, explore these issues in greater detail.
The more difficult question to answer is whether the political changes that information technology is likely to bring about in these countries over the long run will also give rise to significant cultural changes. It is a question related to the much larger issue of the connection between political structure and cultural values. Many East Asian leaders have argued that the proclaimed political agenda of Western nations, and of the United States in particular--encouraging the spread of democracy--is in fact a manifestation of cultural hegemony. At issue is whether the self-proclaimed hierarchical nature of many East Asian nations is a consequence or a determinant of their political structure (as well as their educational systems, research goals and productivity, legal structures, and the like). Would political democratization change culturally determined structures in the same way regardless of whether the stimulus for the change were global networks (as might be the case in Singapore or China) or economic failure and environmental degradation (as in the former Warsaw Pact) or the failure of a military venture (as in Argentina)? These are questions that future studies should examine.
To the extent that cultural values do define political structures or are linked to a society's position on a variety of other issues from human rights to child labor to environmental protection or the protection of religious and ethnic minorities, they are not necessarily neutral. In that sense, the protection and preservation of historic cultures is not an absolute imperative. Thus, labeling attempts to change certain cultural values, whether through global networks or by other means, as cultural hegemony may be accurate but not necessarily dispositive.
India offers an example entirely different from the authoritarian regimes of East Asia in several respects. As a democratic nation committed to preserving the many traditional cultures of its several states, India regards language diversity as an important cultural value. In contrast to the situation in China, the monolinguistic nature of the Internet works against that value. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that the Internet's language is largely English, which has played a special role in India as the link language of the nation and the language of power and wealth. Thus, rather than being a barrier to the penetration of Internet culture, the language is a vehicle for bringing it into the society and skewing a delicate balance.
Because English is so accessible to the educated classes in India, including the large cadre of technically trained software developers, there is little motivation to localize software. Indeed, the dominance of the United States in computer hardware and software, as well as in network content, creates a ready market for the talents of Indian software engineers precisely because of their familiarity with the English language. Thus it appears that software as well as network content oriented toward the English language and American culture is likely to continue to be the norm for some time, setting the stage for possible long-term cultural hegemony in India--at least for Internet-related activities.
Are there factors that may ameliorate this trend? Two suggest themselves. First, although English has functioned as the link language across the many cultures of India, only about 5 percent of its people are fluent in it. Tradition and legal structures have promoted the use of vernacular languages in local commerce and even in government business. Therefore it is possible that the Internet will not penetrate the Indian society to a significant extent. The cost would be a loss of the economic and social gains that the Internet promises; the gain would be the preservation of cultural diversity.
Second, through its long and rather special colonial history, Indian elites have learned to maintain a dual cultural identity, living in two worlds simultaneously. They functioned effectively in the English-dominated governance structure and civil service of the country, while preserving their historical cultures within their own communities. If this duality can be maintained for long enough, the market (possibly U.S. companies but more likely Indian ones) may awaken to the opportunity presented by a country the size of India, where the population of many of its cultural subgroups exceeds by far that of most other entire nations. We may then see the kind of localization of software that would allow a positive social construction of global networks to fit local cultural needs and desires.
Nevertheless, a major unanswered question that needs to be continually re-asked is whether the cultural duality will actually continue. It is possible, after all, that the very power of networks in shifting the modes of business, education, entertainment, and communication will change the pattern.
In many ways, India is an interesting testing ground for the limits of social and cultural construction. Precisely because its technical and business elites can function in either the hegemonic culture of the English-speaking world or in the local and highly diverse cultures of the Indian subcontinent, networks can penetrate India without requiring or even bringing about change. On the other hand, if the efficiencies and opportunities of networks encourage elites to shift more of their daily political, social, and economic activities into the network-dominated culture even without any localization, the shift may disrupt the delicate cultural balance on which Indian democracy is based. In effect, the elites may become the intermediaries that give electronic networks the leverage to alter the culture of the society.
There is still another scenario, different from the East Asian and South Asian examples. It is essentially a reactive and narrow nationalism--even a zealous isolationism--brought about by the perceived fear of the threat to traditional cultures that economic globalization represents. In the view of those who lead this reaction, globalization is a juggernaut that carries with it Western social and cultural values that are anathema to the "invaded" society. What adds to the fear is that globalization has been so successful, both as an economic strategy and as a dominant cultural force.
Electronic networks play a role in this economic globalization, although the trend toward globalization was well under way before the Internet had achieved any significant penetration.12 Nevertheless, they not only play an important current role in globalization, they have come to symbolize it. They also reinforce the influence of English-speaking elites. Localization is not a solution in the view of reactionary national leaders because the essence of these networks--their egalitarian nature, tolerance of diversity, market-driven character, and rhythms of social intercourse--are values that cannot be changed merely by localizing software. The network culture itself--in which shared interests and attitudes rather than familial connections establish group linkages and where geography, history, and connection to the land mean almost nothing--is unacceptable.
Some have argued that the vigor of the reaction in these Asian societies is driven by leaders' concerns that their culture will be perceived as inferior because it cannot produce the same economic results as the invading network-dominated culture.13 Challenged in this way, they seek not to adapt the new technologies to their circumstances but to look inward; their hope is that a purer adherence to their own cultural values not only will be a successful strategy but also will demonstrate its superiority to Western culture.
This scenario, then, is not so much one in which cultural hegemony is at issue; instead, it is one of cultural conflict based on a clash of values. Much has been written about this phenomenon--for example, Barber's Jihad vs. McWorld, Huntington's Clash of Civilizations, and Friedman's Lexus and the Olive Tree.14 These authors postulate that the clash of values arises because of differences between Western cultures, with their push toward globalization, and more traditional Middle Eastern cultures. However, there is also the possibility that the incompatibility is between the local culture and the innate characteristics of the network. The question is, Does the Internet represent a technology that is just not sufficiently flexible to be "socially constructed" to serve the values of these societies or are local political and religious forces preventing them from getting to the point where such a proposition could be tested?
But certain real-world experiments now in progress could provide some preliminary answers to this question. The migration of people from the developing to the developed world is creating relatively cohesive diasporas of various ethnic and religious groups that have not had a significant presence in the Western world until now. The ways in which networks are adapted to the use of these communities--for example, to preserve and transmit language and culture within and between these communities--may indicate whether "localized" networks might ultimately be a positive force in the nations that are, at present, actively excluding them.
A rather different approach to examining the influence of electronic networks on cultural values is to consider their effects on different social groupings within a given society. The issue of education and level of literacy was raised above in connection with India. But it is hardly a situation unique to India. In a world in which more than half of all people have never made a telephone call, it is clear that networks penetrate most societies in a highly skewed way. The most benign consequence is that global networks will be irrelevant to the groups not directly touched by them, in much the same way that the formal economy and legal structure of a number of countries can be irrelevant to the everyday economic and cultural life of certain rural or ethnic groups within those countries.
More worrisome, networks may give rise over time to increasing disparities between those with access to them and those without such access--the so-called "digital divide." The most obvious potential effects have been described: more economic activity mediated by networks means less activity in traditional markets and fewer linkages with traditional society. Networks confer power to organize politically and to gain access to information, education, and even health care, thereby increasing the autonomy of the privileged relative to the less privileged and decreasing the interest of the privileged in the institutions that serve the less privileged.
The educational system in Latin America provides an interesting example of how the support of societal institutions can be skewed by the interests of the privileged. It is often noted that higher education in Latin America is better funded relative to primary and secondary education than in most parts of the world. Indeed, in view of the inadequacy of that region's primary and secondary education funding, many would argue its higher education is overfunded. The reason for the investment disparity is relatively clear. The middle and upper classes in most Latin American countries usually receive their primary and secondary education in private schools but turn to public universities afterward. Therefore they have little motivation for supporting the former and an obvious interest in supporting the latter.
The educational system bears an obvious relationship to the preservation of a society's culture. So, too, do many other institutions whose influence may be less direct. Will network databases available to elites cut down on the perceived need for public libraries? Will Web-distributed music and film, available only to a subset of society, undercut support for local entertainment venues? Will the intensity of telephone-line usage for data transmission actually reverse the slow gains that have occurred in making telephone service available to a wider cross section of society? Whether the effects are transitory or long lasting is a question that needs study. The answer depends on the extent to which initial network developments in a given society "lock in" hardware and software, reducing future flexibility in introducing more appropriately localized structures.
Within Western industrialized societies, some have cast the problem in different terms. Jacques Arlandis,15 for example, has argued that in the networked society the power and behavior of various professional groups are being changed, thus shifting the relationships between them and altering the values, modes of discourse, and structure of the society. His emphasis is on the interactive nature of the change. The network's potential resonates differently with each group in the society, revealing aspects of the group's values. In turn, each group seeks to influence the network's development in different ways.
Examples of these effects on professional groups abound. In the practice of medicine, for example, the local physician is no longer the unquestioned expert for all patients. The availability on the Internet of enormous amounts of data (of widely varying quality) on the treatment of disease has shifted the balance of power between patient and physician, diminishing the absolute authority that physicians long enjoyed in determining what was best for a patient. Telemedicine--the ability of specialists to deliver treatment without being in the physical presence of the patient--promises to offer patients a much higher degree of collaboration and consultation between general practitioners and specialists in deciding on treatments. Both of these changes represent significant shifts in the nature of a professional culture.
Still another example: network-stimulated changes in copyright protections and related fair-use exemptions have the potential to change long-established patterns of sharing and using scientific data--that is, the culture of the science community. Whether this will shift the traditional balance between open, "pre-competitive" scientific research and commercialization of scientific applications remains to be seen.
The proximity of computers and networks to the everyday life of the society gives rise to a resurgence of power for experts, creating a new elite and enormous rewards for technological innovation. And the ability of many technologically literate professionals to master the new systems gives them access to sources of useful knowledge not available to others, and confers the advantages that come with such knowledge. Journalists and other intermediaries lose legitimacy as more people are connected directly to sources of information. At the same time, a new class of intermediaries may arise from among those experts who have the skills to create value-added products within the world of electronic databases and services.
To the extent that the cyberworld facilitates the formation of epistemic groups without regard to geographic boundaries, it provides a lifeline to individuals who live within geographic boundaries; thus cultural diversity in real space is actually promoted by the anarchy of cyberspace. On the other hand, the virtual society of the network can become a substitute for the geographically bounded society, drawing individuals away from the real political and social world and leaving it even more homogeneous, if somewhat reduced in richness.
For merchants, it is not the anarchy of cyberspace that is attractive but its efficacy as a marketplace. For this group, the value of the networked world is its sameness; commerce looks the same across the world. Thus growth of global commerce shifts the relationship between merchants and politicians, requiring them to form a partnership that changes the balance in a society in which politicians had previously been the arbiters of competing interests, only one of which was that of the merchants. Politicians, or at least governments, must now represent the interests of "their" merchants in such issues as copyright, privacy protection, standards development, and taxation, to cite just a few.
Arlandis suggests that many of these issues can be understood, or at least analyzed, in terms of the technical, economic, and social forces that move a society. All three are influenced by the cyberworld and all three, in turn, influence the development of that world. But crucial to the argument, and important to framing future research questions, is the fact that these are not independent forces; they themselves interact, and local society as well as the networked society depends on their collective effect.
Not all of the cultural phenomena affected by global networks relate to groups or classes. The shifting relationship between public and private spaces, essentially an issue concerning individuals in the society, is one of the most interesting and complex brought about by the cyberworld. That boundary, in both principle and practice, has been largely determined by cultural norms. Which people know about us and what they know, what they physically see of us, how we feel about it, and the extent to which we control it differ widely from one culture to another.
Some aspects of this issue--in particular, those related to privacy, which refers rather specifically to the right to control the distribution and use of information about oneself--are discussed in Chapter 6 of this report. It is noted there that even in cultures as closely similar as the United States and Germany, there are deep differences in perspective. In the wider world, the differences are much more profound. How and where one entertains, the candor and directness with which one expresses ideas, and how publicly and under what circumstances one displays one's body parts are all related to the boundary between public and private spheres but follow no obvious, logical, or consistent pattern.
In Japan, one is more likely to share a community bath with strangers than to express an opinion directly to them. In the United States, the use of one's social security number merely for purposes of identification has become a major public issue, but it is widely expected that just about everyone in a small community will know who has visited you in the past month and what you ate.
The public/private space boundary may not be rational, but in the physical world it is more or less clear how to maintain it. If one does not want a private conversation heard publicly, one does not carry it out loudly on a bus. If one wants to maintain a private living space, one does not entertain there. If one wants to discourage telephone calls, one does not allow the listing of one's telephone number in the directory.
On the other hand, there are community norms that reject excessive protection of privacy. A covered face might be reflective of modesty in a Muslim society, but it would generate great suspicion on a street in Europe or the United States. An unsigned letter to the editor would not be published in most Western countries (although anonymity in voting is a basic tenet of democracy). For public officials in the United States, there is almost no element of their lives that the public or the media is willing to accept as private.
Information networks present a challenge to these cultural norms in a number of ways. First, the technologies themselves have the potential to shift the boundary between public and private space in either direction, depending on circumstance and the sophistication of the user. Encryption technologies can increase the effective domain of private space; on the other hand, connecting to the Web can, in itself, expose the contents of one's computer to inspection or alteration and thus provide a public incursion into previously private space. Most discussions of this issue have emphasized the latter point rather than the former, in large part because of the threat posed by the naiveté of Web users and the surreptitious nature of information-gathering technologies.
Technological sophistication and aggressiveness enter the picture because the actual shift is affected by the vigor of attempts to penetrate the boundary and the defenses mounted to prevent it. In certain circumstances, a code name may be sufficient to prevent a person's identity from being known in a chat room; in other cases, a so-called secure encrypted message may be intercepted and decoded by a person or organization with sufficiently advanced decryption technology.
But the larger cultural question concerns the effect of decoupling one's physical presence and geographical location from the world of bits, in which ideas, opinions, and virtual intimacy can flourish disembodied. An often-referenced New Yorker cartoon shows two dogs conversing in front of a computer monitor with one saying, "Yes, but on the Internet, they don't know you're a dog."16 This is a world in which "local space" is not equivalent to "private space," where the safe expression of candor in speech or the embarrassment-free expression of intimacy to strangers is possible.
A question for future study is whether the existence and experience of such a world will shift behavior patterns within one's local setting or merely provide an alternative space in which values and behavior can differ from those of everyday life. If the former scenario prevails, global networks will provide a means for relaxing culturally imposed conformity and for encouraging individuality. Whether this is viewed as a good or bad thing will, of course, depend on the local cultures in which the new behavior patterns arise. If the latter scenario more accurately captures the reality, the question is whether those already inclined to seek such a dissociation of body from thought will selectively populate the world of bits or whether the cyberworld will, in itself, create the motivation to change patterns of behavior for those who choose to become "Netizens."
The concept of Netizens, of course, carries with it the idea that there really is a distinct cyberculture composed of individuals, drawn from many different local cultures, who share a number of characteristics and values. In this view, the significant divide is between this group and essentially all geographically centered (and hence locally centered) cultures. Within the cyberworld, there is no requirement to meet anyone's physical needs, ideas are more easily dissociated from any specific individuals, and tangible consequences of ideas are limited. This leads to a culture that places a great deal of value on removing any restriction to the flow of ideas, much less value on their critical assessment, and an absolute antipathy to any hierarchical structure that might be superimposed on a world entirely defined by ideas.17
This kind of cyberculture is, in many ways, a utopian anarchy; it clearly offers a strong contrast to locally centered cultures of almost any kind. But is it necessarily a threat to those local cultures? And is it an ineluctable prototype of global networks? In the committee's view, these two questions are related, and the answer to both is no. The rapid growth of the Internet as a source of information and services, and as a medium for commerce, continues to increase the diversity of individuals who use it, as well as their purposes in using it and the extent to which they use it. The Netizens who pioneered these networks and created for a period of time a fairly well-defined epistemic group, now constitute a rather small minority of Net users much as they constitute a rather small minority of each of the many societies from which they come. These pioneers embraced an absence of structure, which has meant that the evolution of network culture has not been controllable by any group; the resulting culture is, and will continue to be, far from homogeneous.
To what extent are other cultural conflicts primarily issues of transition that will resolve themselves over time? Edward McCracken, former president and CEO of Silicon Graphics, Inc., describes an intriguing generational phenomenon that is apparent even within his high-technology, information-based company.18
Members of the most senior generation--those who trained and began their careers before digitized information technology had emerged--never become completely comfortable with the gestalt of modern information technology: its opportunities and the altered ways of thinking and working that it entails. For the middle generation--those who grew up with the new technology--computers and networks are overwhelming objects of interest. Many of these individuals are the computer "nerds" and "hackers," the creative people who treat the optimization of hardware and software, and the development of new ways of doing old things, as fascinating and satisfying ends in themselves. They are also the Netizens discussed in the previous section.
For the younger generation, information technology in all of its manifestations appears to be viewed primarily as a set of tools, taken almost as much for granted as hammers and screwdrivers. To be sure, the analogy can be overdrawn. Information technology continues to develop at an extraordinary rate, while hammers and screwdrivers work much as they have for hundreds of years. Therefore the improvement of these new tools remains a creative enterprise, a fact that makes them objects of continuing attention. But the trend seems clear: they are moving toward becoming transparent systems, simply the means for carrying out the activities of a society and achieving its goals.
Can this observation be generalized to the connection between global networks and culture? Cultural resistance may be a phenomenon of the "senior" generation, cultural distortion a characteristic of the "middle" generation, and social and cultural construction the final stage in the transition. That optimistic scenario would be constrained by two phenomena: "technological lock-in," the phenomenon of path dependence in which initial technological choices limit future flexibility, and "technological unsuitability," the essential conflict between the structure and dynamics of a new technology and the cultural/social system on which it is being imposed.
The concept of transition is important in another respect. Some cast the issue of information technology and culture as a choice between the preservation or loss of existing cultural values. This seems to the committee a false dichotomy in that it conveys the notion that cultural norms are static. In fact, it is difficult to conceive of a dynamic society in which natural and social history, demographics, and intersocietal intercourse do not alter cultural norms. Technological change is clearly one, but only one, of the factors that bring about evolutionary change. These include language, art, myths, and music, as well as political and economic structure, occupations, housing, food, education--indeed, the totality of human activity.
But the pathway of change is very much affected by existing cultural traditions, and the outcome of change is largely defined by those traditions. A McDonald's restaurant in Beijing does not make Beijing into Peoria, even though it makes Beijing something different from what it was. The challenge in the development of new technologies, as Thompson has noted, is to emphasize "inflexibility reduction."19 The premise is that it is impossible to predict all of the social and cultural effects of a new technology on the institutions of society; those institutions themselves include a mixture of individuals and groups that fall into different "social solidarities," each of which will affect and react differently to the technology. There is therefore a need for experimentation and iteration in the construction of technological applications. This requires both attention to the interactive effects as they occur and the capacity to make adjustments in response.
Examining the impact of global networks on local cultural values must therefore be viewed as an ongoing challenge. Ability to predict the changes is less important than alertness in observing them and creativity in responding with altered designs--not with the goal or expectation that global networks should not or will not alter detailed local cultural patterns of behavior, but to ensure that the changes do not disconnect the cultural present and future from the past, or alter the balance of solidarities in a way that is unacceptable to the society they affect.
1 Robert McC. Adams, 1996, Paths of Fire: An Anthropoligist's Inquiry Into Western Technology, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press; Leo Marx, 1964, The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America, Oxford: Oxford University Press; Nathan Rosenberg, 1994, Exploring the Black Box: Technology, Economics, and History, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
2 Michael Thompson. 1999. "Global Networks and Local Cultures: What Are the Mismatches and What Can Be Done About Them?," in Understanding the Impact of Global Networks on Local Social, Political and Cultural Values, Christoph Engel and Kenneth H. Keller, eds., Law and Economics of International Telecommunications, Vol. 42. Baden-Baden: Nomos.
3 See Esther Dyson, 1997, Release 2.0. New York: Broadway Books, p. 52.
4 Lawrence Lessig. 1999. Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace. New York: Basic Books.
5 Native English speakers now represent approximately 45 percent of the online population. See United States Internet Council, 2001 State of the Internet Report, Press Release November 12, 2001. Available from <http://www.usinternetcouncil.org/>.
6 This is not to say that priorities cannot and will not be established that affect access to certain kinds of material or its effective speed of transmission. Internet service providers already have the technical capacity to do that, using filtering or blocking technologies to create various degrees of transparency (a measure of the extent to which the network itself exerts influence on the ability of individuals to access content). The point here is that, unlike broadcasting, the earlier content and service providers gain no great advantage that would allow them to limit access to their services or exclude those who follow.
7 Localization refers to the rewriting of software programs from the original language in which they were developed to the language of the locality in which they will be used. However, more than language is involved because cultural differences may well require that colors, numbers, box sizes, names, dates, and icons be changed for the program to work in the new cultural setting.
8 The Scandinavian countries are an exception to this general statement, reflecting their small size and economic and social homogeneity. The city state of Singapore is another special case.
9 See John Tagliabue, "Online Cohabitation: Internet and Minitel; Videotex System in France Proves Unusually Resilient," New York Times, June 2, 2001, Saturday.
10 The easy and wide availability of information on the Internet has created an environment in which people are generally unwilling to pay for content except in very specific areas such as pornography or current business information. Therefore "bundling" is a common practice, offering a good deal of free content in the hopes of attracting consumers to purchasable goods and services.
11 See, for example, Jennifer Lee, "Punching Holes in Internet Walls," New York Times, April 26, 2001.
12 For example, international financial networks have been important to the global economy for at least several decades. See Walter B. Wriston, 1992, The Twilight of Sovereignty, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.
13 Bernard, Lewis. 1999. "The West and the Middle East," Foreign Affairs 76(1):114-130.
14 Benjamin R. Barber, 1996, Jihad vs. McWorld, New York: Ballantine Books; Samuel P. Huntington, 1998, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order, New York: Touchstone Books; Thomas L. Friedman, The Lexus and the Olive Tree, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
15 Jacques Arlandis, 2000, "The Clerk, the Merchant and the Politician," in Governance of Global Networks in the Light of Differing Local Values, Christoph Engel and Kenneth H. Keller, eds., Baden-Baden: Nomos.
16 Cartoon by Peter Steiner, The New Yorker, July 5, 1993, p. 61.
17 See, for example, John Perry Barlow, "A Declaration on the Independence of Cyberspace," available online at <http://www.eff.org/pub/Publications/John_Perry_Barlow/barlow_0296.declaration>.
18 Edward McCracken, "Innovation and Information Technology in the 21st Century," Keynote speech, Science and Technology Day, University of Minnesota, April 3, 1997.
19 Michael Thompson, "Cultural Theory and Technology Assessment," manuscript prepared for European Parliament, Office of Scientific and Technological Options Assessment, Luxembourg, October 1995.