About Me

Education, the knowledge society, the global market all connected through technology and cross-cultural communication skills are I am all about. I hope through this blog to both guide others and travel myself across disciplines, borders, theories, languages, and cultures in order to create connections to knowledge around the world. I teach at the University level in the areas of Business, Language, Communication, and Technology.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Culture and Technology

This post is as much a work in progress to help me understand some of what I am seeing in my dissertation. So I apologize for the lack of specific references at this point. I am hoping to find some to support some of the ideas I have uncovered.

Defining Culture and Technology

There has been a lot written over the last 2 decades on the impact of culture on technology and the impact of technology on culture. Betty Collis and Catherine McLoughlin have written extensively on this issue. Rather than reiterate what they have written, I would like to look at a framework for further research in culture and technology.

To begin with, the interaction of culture and technology often looks at the influence of one on the other. However, I feel that culture is the unseen basis of technology. Technology can be a process, a tool, and/or the use of a tool or process. As a result, knowledge is at the basis of what technology is. Epistemology (the belief of what knowledge is) is grounded in our cultures. This becomes evident when someone changes cultures or is introduced to a culture other than the one in which they grew up.

For example, when children first go to school, suddenly they are aware that there are differences between what the school believes is knowledge, what their classmates believe is knowledge, and what their families believe is knowledge (thus, I was told I "didn't know how to write my name" when I began school because it was not my given name I had learned--Virginia--but rather my nickname--Gin).

So our understanding of what a technology is and how it can be used may change if there is a cultural challenge to our understanding of that technology. At that point, we can either adapt the technology, change the technology we are using, or require that others use our technology.

Considerations for culture and technology research

In my current research, I have seen how organizational, departmental, personal, or professional cultures influence the understanding, use, and acceptance of technology for a given situation. In this section I will identify some of the factors that influence the impact of culture on and by technology.

1) Affordances: An affordance is the use of a technology for a given situation. It is the ability for a process, tool, or use of the process or tool to allow us to accomplish something. Many times, what we look for in an affordance for a specific situation is based on how that technology has been used in the past and what we understand its capabilities are. If the technology does not allow us to accomplish what we used it for, then we either did not use it correctly or the technology does not work. Rarely to we look at whether our expectations in the use of the technology differed from others expectations.

For example, my sister currently lives in the Midwest and has embraced a midwestern, protestant, rural culture. However, her New York, small town, Catholic culture in which she was raised comes out when she uses technology. Unlike her husband (who was raised in the culture where she lives), she wants to be able to individualize the technology she uses and expects to work with ITS personnel to help her to modify the technology or be given new tools when she finds the technology lacking. A case in point was her use of a LMS that she did not feel met the needs for her class. Her colleagues just adapted what they were given to their own teaching, while my sister demanded that the ITS look for modifications in order for her to accomplish the learning and communication goals she had set up for her class. She expected better affordances to monitor student progress, for students to be able to interact with content, and for better teacher student communication outside of the class.

2) Design: The spacial relationship with processes, tools, and the uses of those tools and processes differ depending on the cultural epistemology and context. In high context cultures, I feel there will be less variety in the understanding and expectations for a given technology (within that culture) whereas in a low context culture, there will be more variety. In addition, many western cultures will use a linear relationship within the technology while eastern cultures may be more apt to use a spatial relationship with the technology. There will also be differences in the relationship in the human/technology interaction and the human/technology/human interaction. This makes sense given the differences between cultures in the way they organize information, communicate ideas, and validate knowledge.

3)Visual and language differences How a tool looks, how a process is communicated, the terms and symbols that are integrated into technology will differ between cultures because these are all at the heart of culture differences. For example, many Asian languages read from right to left and their writing is based on symbols for ideas rather than phonetic symbols. Many cultures value oral traditions over written, written over visual, or equally value oral, visual, and written traditions. As a result, different technologies might be valued differently within one culture than another culture.

Future research

I feel it is important that we begin to look at the culture that is embedded in technology in order to understand how people decide what technologies to use and how to use them. This would also help us to identify what factors we need to consider when choosing appropriate technology for use with or in other cultures and the impact that that technology would have on its implementation and on the use by the culture.


Anonymous said...

Two things spring to mind reading this: if technologies are culturally embedded, what are the dominant cultures that underpin them, and how flexible are these 'culturally embedded' technologies when they are used in similar or dissimilar cultures? I find it useful to draw on critical theory to address both:

Arisaka (2001) explains how technology has no ‘essence’ but is materialised into a specific configuration; an engineering design or product etc. Technology is not a thing in itself but a process of social, historical and political cultures, in which it becomes value-laden with a practical purpose. Critical theorists, such as Andrew Feenburg describe the social and cultural aspects of technology to put forward a political perspective. He argues technology is neither neutral nor deterministic but 'ambivalent' suggesting design processes are predominantly capitalist in nature, and advocating more democratic and participative models (interesting when related to learning technologies).

Another critical theorist, Don Ihde (1990), explains how we experience both embodiment and hermeneutic relations to technology. In the former, perception is determined through use, and the latter describes how the technology represents the quality or value of an object without the people perceiving that quality directly. In both relations, technology mediates experience, and through this mediation, it alters the experience. It's interesting to compare this with the idea of affordances.

Arisaka, Y. (2001). Women Carrying Water: At the Crossroads of Technology and Critical Theory. In Paris, J., & Wilkinson, W. (Eds.) New Critical Theory., New York: Rowman and Littelfield.

Feenberg, A. (1991). Critical theory of technology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Feenberg, A. (2002). Transforming Technology: A Critical Theory Revisited. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ihde, D. (1990). Technology and the lifeworld. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

V Yonkers said...

Andy, thanks for adding to the discussion and the resources. I had forgotten how critical pedagogues base their theory of education on culture. Therefore, their contribution to understanding technology within the context of culture would be relevant.

I wonder, though, if "design" or how each person understands it is culturally bound. In English based cultures, design is a process with definitive steps. However, lately I've been reading about abductive reasoning (Pierce and the Pragmatists) which brings in intuition and what Kolb refers to as apprehensive knowledge. In capitalist cultures, this type of knowledge is not "commercial" and therefore is not considered valuable. However, it might be the intuitive design which cannot be replicated (an essence) is considered technology in a different culture.