Technology and Culture

by Ishita and James

When Walter White, the main character in the AMC television series Breaking Bad[1]was about to go under general anesthesia, his wife – suspecting that he had lied about having two cell phones – told him that she had found his cell phone. Walter unintentionally revealed the truth when he responded, “Which one?”

This anecdote highlights how the character’s choices about how to manage his double-life often involve considerations about how he appropriates technology. These appropriations, however, are not essential reflections of what something like duplicity looks like in any technological system or interconnected community. Instead, there are context-specific patterns that characterize interpersonal interactions and social negotiations which are often unique to certain cultures. Horst and Miller’s ethnographic research in Jamaica demonstrates that keeping some people in one’s cell phone contact list unaware of the other identities which may be on that list does not necessitate acquiring a separate phone.

That privacy concerns map onto communication issues and are not independent of design is – hopefully at this point in the semester – almost self-evident. Other kinds of privacy concerns are evident in the example of the Pentium III in Nissenbaum’s IEEE Computer article. The article’s title, “How Computer Systems Embody Values,” assumes an affirmative answer to Langdon Winner’s article from the beginning of the semester: Artifacts have politics. Perhaps more telling is that even as (historically) recent as 2001, a philosophy professor still has to explain to professional computer engineers that values can become manifest in technology. Nevertheless, the appearance in such a journal is an encouraging indication that STS-related concerns are entering more technical discourses. As Judd Antin recently impressed upon us, the need to have such breadth – especially in the social sciences – in one’s skill set (in addition to one’s particular expertise) is critical in the job market.

Antin’s talk also threw up some interesting insights about the cultural appropriation of Facebook. It is certainly interesting and hardly surprising that a tool as ubiquitous as Facebook, with nearly a billion users worldwide would register dissimilarities in its use across the world. While the United States boasts the highest number of users in the world (almost a 170 million), Brazil, India, Indonesia, and Mexico all house more than 40 million members per country, just a quick example to demonstrate the deep inroads that Facebook has been able to make in different parts of the world.

Judd mentioned that “friending” patterns of users differed across the world. For instance, it’s common in some parts of the world, especially in the United States, to restrict your Facebook friends to people you know, ranging from close family and friends to mere acquaintances. On the other hand, it is not uncommon to see thousands of “friends” on people’s Facebook accounts in certain parts of South East Asia, where it is generally acceptable to add strangers. This actually resonates with the Horst and Miller article, where the idea of “link-up” in Jamaica essentially constitutes a bare-bones form of sociality that allows for a quick call to be made to explicitly ask for help/support/resources without any judgment, something that would be social suicide in the United States. In practice, the tool in question support similar functions around the world – choosing a number from your call log and then dialing it, or clicking on the “add friend” button on Facebook. However, the objectives, motivations, and affectivity informing these practices may greatly vary across individuals or communities, thus signaling crucial cultural disparities.

Of course, thinking about what “culture” itself means is important if we are to even begin to understand how a given technology will be appropriated by people with different values, and in different political, economic, and social environments (maybe we never can predict this completely). A rather slapdash, yet revealing quote by Vittorio Colao, the Chief Executive of the Vodafone Group, “Culture influences the lifestyle, and the lifestyle influences the way we communicate,” certainly sheds some light on the atypical means of interactions and negotiations that different populations may engage in with the same technology artifact. Their “culture” may also determine the protocol for its eventual use within a community. “If you don’t leave your phone on in a meeting in Italy, you are likely to miss the next one,” says Colao. But this behavior would probably not go down well in the United States, where such an interruption would be frowned upon. Another example is of the use of phones on trains in Japan, something that is considered far more egregious, according to some reports, than the use of mobile phones in a movie theatre (imagine that!). While the first step of registering such dissimilarities in technology use and appropriation is interesting yet relatively straightforward, a more complex analysis would likely dig deeper to try and understand exactly what cultural aspects may be informing use, practice and protocol. Even more tricky might be separating individual values from community culture.

Finally, it may be worthwhile to think about how the same technology artifact may actually have different value or meaning for different individuals or communities. For instance, when we think of the “digital divide” we assume that access to a computer or broadband or a mobile phone will suddenly provide access to “information”, “power”, “freedom” in a wholesome, unadulterated manner. Yet a mobile phone may now enable a polygamous husband to take more wives (and sometimes in the process divorce his current wife), something that his wife might have otherwise been able to monitor and prevent. Or as the Horst & Miller article points out, a mother may now be unable to restrict phone conversations between her son and her estranged husband, making her worry constantly. Can technology then, enable and indeed underpin certain damaging facets of different cultures? If so, how do designers balance the trade-offs and thus arrive at final design decisions?


[1] The series follows the character Walter White, – a brilliant, over-qualified high school chemistry teacher diagnosed with cancer – who undergoes chemotherapy and decides to begin manufacturing methamphetamine to keep his family financially sound.


[2] Here is the link to the Economist article that has Colao’s quote.


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