Taking (what sort of) Culture Serious?

The impact of technological advancements on culture and society one we have to seriously consider as technology permeates developed society. As Anne Balsamo pointed out, the divide between the haves and the have-nots can have drastic effects, especially as the use of technology becomes naturalized into our society. As society becomes more and more technologically literate, technology itself starts to be taken for granted, feel like a given, as natural.

Taxi Driver in Hong Kong with 5 cell phones

Taxi Driver in Hong Kong with 5 cell phones

Great Image. It illuminates these stats.

I have a friend in college who refused to get a cell phone. This was about ten years ago, when college students having cell phones was all the rage. Now, a person can hardly function in developed society without having some sort of mobile device. This mentality, though, often makes us forget sectors of society in which members simply cannot afford to have mobile phones and still use landlines. However, cell phones as a technology has become so transparent, so NATURAL, that our expectations for other people have changed accordingly. For example, in an age where cell phones are such the norm, we don’t often hold others or ourselves to planned schedules and meetings. Stephen Colbert put it eloquently in his commencement speech to Northwestern while talking about his college experience 25 years ago, “…and we didn’t have cell phones. If you made plans to meet someone in a snow storm, and they didn’t show up, you just assumed they were devoured by wolves and went on with your life.” In an age of cell phones, it is so easy to call the person you are going to meet and tell them you’re running a few minutes late. There’s less accountability, people don’t keep their word as well.

Balsamo’s call for universities to have a “robust technological imagination” really speaks to me, as well as her thoughts on digital authoring environments and the use of social media for academic ends. Thus far, the written text in traditional paper form (usually in peer-reviewed journals whose existence and process has come up for debate) has dominated legitimate knowledge, especially in the university. Rarely are dissertations not in a written form, the form of some sort of elongated research paper. In my many years of graduate school, only two classes (other than this one) have used some sort of web-based, multimedia project (even though most of my colleagues, myself included, interact through a plethora of other mediums, including social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, blogs, and YouTube. How can we start changing the traditional way of thinking that legitimate thoughts linear and on paper, and non-linear thoughts (filled with hyperlinks and images) not legitimate? It is not that I don’t think text is important (on the contrary, I think text is VERY important, as written and spoken language are the primary ways through which we communicate and is the foundation of literacy in our society), but I do strongly feel that there is more than one way to obtain information…clearly. And different forms of media that can convey messages more effectively than words ever can.

Moreover, I think her call for using critical thinking to propose how to do things differently is key. Too much of academia, I feel, is deconstructive, focused on seeing what is wrong with it. Although deconstructing is important (one must be aware of and understand the building blocks of any social construct in order to be conscious of the power dynamics embedded in it), the act of deconstruction is most useful when paired with forms of constructive productive measure, something I find sorely lacking in academic discourse.

I’m still not sure, though, what exactly Balsamo means when she says “culture.” How is she defining it? What is the culture that we have to take seriously? She talks about intercultural confusion with the Microsoft examples, but then she also seems to say that the humanities and the sciences, invoking Snow, are two different cultures as well. She builds up an argument (with which I agree) wherein new technologies must be considered and incorporated in today’s knowledge-making and collaboratory methods, but I feel she still speaks from within a framework of developed societies – those societies, or “cultures,” if you will, that have the means of accessing new technologies. She talks about a “research community that collaborates on technology-based projects that take culture seriously,” and yet, I am still confused as to WHAT culture needs to be taken seriously.


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