Wednesday, January 14th, 2009

Cultural Imperialism, Technology, and OLPC

A couple posts have got me thinking about cultural imperialism lately: a post by Guido van Rossum about “missionaries” and OLPC not about OLPC at all, a post by Chris Hardie and a speech by Wade Davis.

Some of the questions raised: are we destroying cultures? If so, what can we do about it? Must we be hands off? I will add these questions: is it patronizing to make these choices for other people, no matter how enlightened we try to be? How much change is inevitable? Can we help make the change positive instead of resisting change?

More specifically: what is the effect of OLPC on cultures where it is introduced? Especially small cultures, cultures that have been relatively isolated, cultures that are vulnerable. The internet Quechua community is pretty slim, for example. Introducing the internet into a community will lead the children to favor Spanish more strongly, and identify with that more dominant culture over their family and community culture.

Criticisms like Guido’s are common:

I’m not surprised that the pope is pleased by the OLPC program. The mentality from which it springs is the same mentality which in past centuries created the missionary programs. The idea is that we, the west, know what’s good for the rest of the world, and that we therefore must push our ideas onto the “third world” by means of the most advanced technology available. In past centuries, that was arguably the printing press, so we sent missionaries armed with stacks of bibles. These days, we have computers, so we send modern missionaries (of our western lifestyle, including consumerism, global warming, and credit default swaps) armed with computers.

This kind of criticism is easy, because it doesn’t have any counterproposal. It’s not saying much more than “you all suck” to the people involved.

Cultural imperialism is a genuine phenomena. In an attempt to subjugate or assimilate, the dominant culture may explicitly and cynically enforce its cultural norms, through its religion, requiring all schools to operate in the dominant language, even going as far as suggesting how we arrange ourselves during sex.

But it’s not clear to me that what’s happening now is cultural imperialism. It’s more market-oriented homogenization. Food manufacturers don’t use high-fructose corn syrup because they want to make us fat — they just give us what we want, and they are enabling our latent tendency to become obese. Similarly I think the way culture is spread currently encourages homogeneity, without explicit attempting to destroy culture.

This is where I think a protectionist stance — the idea we should just be hands-off — is patronizing. People aren’t abandoning their cultures because they are stupid and they are being manipulated. People make decisions, what they think is the best decision for themself and their families. These decisions lead them to leave rural areas, learn the dominant language, try to conform through education, and even just lead them to enjoy a dominant culture which is often far more entertaining than a smaller and more traditional culture.

The irony is that once they’ve done this they’ve traded their position for a place in the bottom rung of the dominant society. And it’s true that in many cases they’ve made these decisions because they’ve been forced out of their traditional life by political and legal systems they don’t understand. But to blame it all on oppression is to be blind to the many concrete benefits of our modern world. Corrugated metal roofs are simply superior to thatched roofs, and we can get all romantic about traditional building processes and material independence, but we do so from homes with roofs that don’t leak. Leaking roofs are just objectively unpleasant. And frankly people like TV, you don’t have to tell people to like TV, it just happens.

So I believe that assimilation pressure is natural and inevitable in our times.

What then of technology, of the internet and laptops?

I believe OLPC takes an important stance when it selects open source and open licensing for its content. It is valuing freedom, but more importantly encouraging self-determination, trying to build up a user base that can act as peers in this project, not as simply receivers of first-world largess. But it will be culturally disruptive. And I’m okay with that. In a patriarchal culture, giving girls access to this technology will be destructive to that power structure. Yay! I believe in the moral rightness of that one girl making her own choices, finding her own truths, more than I believe in the validity of the culture she was born into. If you believe people should be able to make their own choices (so long as they are aware of the real consequence of their choices), then you must allow for them to choose to abandon their own cultures for something they find more appealing. They might know better than you if that’s a good choice. I think we all hope that instead they transform their own cultures, but that’s not our choice to make.

What I find unpleasant is if they leave a true identity to find themselves in a place of cultural subservience. If they feel they can’t preserve the part of their culture they most value. Perhaps because of discrimination they feel they must hide their past, or they build up a sense of self-loathing. Perhaps they become isolated, unable to find peers that understand where they come from. And perhaps there is no higher culture at all that they can use to exalt their understanding of the world — do they have a literature? Do they have non-traditional music forms of their own? Do they have a forum where people who share their perspective can have serious discussions? Cultures aren’t destroyed so much as they are starved out of existence.


I think assimilation is inevitable, and can be positive. If we were all able to speak to each other, with some shared second or third language, I think the world would be a better place. I’m not a Christian, but I’m not afraid of anyone knowing The Bible. There’s no piece of culture that I would want to deny from anyone. Each new song, each new book, each new idea… I believe they will all make you a better person, if only in a small way.

And on the internet our culture is cumulative. There’s only so many hours of programming on TV or the radio, only so many pages in a newspaper. On the internet the presence of one kind of culture does not exclude any other. There’s room for a Quechua community as much of any other. But the online Quechua community won’t have exclusive rights to its members like a traditional culture claims — children will live between cultures.

Cumulative culture is not a promise that anyone will care. Languages can still die, cultures can still die, identities become forgotten. If these smaller cultures are going to be preserved, they must adapt to the partially-assimilated status of their members. There must be new art and new ideas and new identities. This is why I believe in the laptop project, because it can enable the creation and sharing of these new ideas. I think it will give smaller cultures a chance to survive — there’s no promises, literature doesn’t write itself, but maybe there is at least a chance.

This is also why I am more skeptical of mobile phones, audio devices, and any device that doesn’t actively enable content creation. Mobile phones are not how culture is made. It let’s people chat, consume information, communicate in a 12-key pidgin. But the mobile phone user is not a peer in a world wide web of information. The mobile phone user lives on a proprietary network, with a proprietary device, and while it perhaps it breaks down some hierarchies through disintermediation, it does so in a transient way. The uptake is certainly faster, but the potential seems so much lower.

I don’t know if OLPC will be successful. That’s as unclear now as ever. But it’s trying to do the right thing, and I think it’s a better chance than most for maintaining or improving the richness of the worlds’ culture.

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