Impact of ICT on Indigenous Cultures: Rejuvenation or Colonization?

The 2003, the Geneva Declaration of the Global Forum of Indigenous Peoples and the Information Society stated that

Information and Communication Technology (ICT) should be used to support and encourage cultural diversity and to preserve and promote the language, distinct identities and traditional knowledge of Indigenous peoples, nations and tribes in a manner which they determine best advances these goals. The evolution of the information and communication societies must be founded on the respect and promotion of the rights of Indigenous peoples, nations and tribes and our distinctive and diverse cultures, as outlined in international conventions. We have fundamental and collective rights to protect, preserve and strengthen our own languages, cultures and identities.

But can ICT truly preserve and protect distinct identities and culture? Does ICT by its very intervention introduce an element of westernization amidst the indigenous culture that it purports to preserve and protect? What is the optimum balance between preserving traditional knowledge and embracing remix culture? The cultural debate surrounding deployment of ICT in the field of indigenous/ knowledge and culture simply refuses to die down.

According to Mark Oppenneer, “the implementation of ICTs in service to indigenous peoples in development settings is a double-edged sword”, as both the critics and proponents of ICT4D have seemingly irreconcilable perspectives.

Questioning the cultural neutrality of the ICT medium, Charles Ess, in his paper “Questioning the Obvious? Ethical and Cultural Dimensions of CMC and ICTs” states that

[..]. Far from serving as value-free or morally-neutral tools, CMC (Computer mediated Communication) technologies themselves appear to embed and foster the cultural values and communicative preferences of their Western designers. As a first example: South Africa has attempted to establish Learning Centres intended to empower indigenous peoples by helping them take advantage of the multiple potentials and capacities of ICTs. A series of observers have noted, however, that these Centres repeatedly fail – in part, because of basic cultural conflicts. Briefly, the Centres reflect their designer’s Western emphasis on individual and silent learning – in contrast with indigenous preferences for learning in collaborative and often noisy, performative ways (Postma 2001). This conflict is also captured in Edward T. Hall’s distinction between high and low context cultures (1976). In this schema, contemporary societies such as the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Germanic countries show a preference for literate (i.e., textual), high content (but low context) information transfer – while societies such as Arabic cultures, indigenous peoples, and many Asian cultures prefer instead more oral, low content (but high context) modes of communication.

[…] Similarly, Western Group Support Systems (GSS) that favor anonymity as a feature intended to encourage open and direct communication proved disastrous in the Confucian cultures of South Asia, as this indeed succeeded in encouraging subordinates to make comments that were culturally interpreted – and condemned – as attacks on one’s “face” (Abdat and Pervan 2000). These and multiple other examples make clear that CMC technologies carry and further a specific set of cultural values and communicative preferences – ones that, far from being universally shared, are indeed limited to specific cultural domains.

Secondly, because these technologies thus clearly embed and foster specific cultural values and communicative preferences – the initial enthusiasm for these technologies inadvertently but powerfully only aids and abets a form of “computer-mediated colonization” that threatens to override diverse cultural values and communicative preferences with those defining the dominant economic and political powers of the West.

While Ess, worried about the medium defeating the intended purpose of preservation, calls for a more culturally-aware framework, others have pointed out that such concerns are not entirely correct.

In response to a query by David Sasaki, director of Global Voices’ Rising Voices section, as to whether or not helping under-represented communities join the online global conversation inevitably leads to their westernization/Americanization,  Álvaro Ramírez and Diego Gomez, co-founders of the HiperBarrio project, spoke of the community adapting Western culture to their own needs, infusion of new knowledge and broadening horizons.

Citing the example of hip-hop music, Alvaro pointed out that for the community, while there was definitely some US influence, the issue was not so much Americanization as adapting something western to their own needs. So it was not only about getting influenced but exerting influence as well, giving birth to something new, new knowledge or culture. Diego noted that the project had also opened up other doors of communication beyond westernization.

I think that in this project especially they have been influenced not just by Americans they now begin to think about India, Dubai, and other cultures that they didn't know existed before. Or they didn't have much reference.

Projects such as the E-Bario project in Malaysia, Community project of the indigenous Ngalia and Badimaya people of Western Australia, the Alan – Gluban project in Taiwan are a few cases in point.

In the final analysis, as Mark Oppenneer points out

…the critics are right: misguided ICT4D implementation that doesn’t take into consideration a wide range of cultural factors and explicitly or implicitly imposes Western processes or structures upon indigenous recipients does constitute a new form of computer-mediated colonialism. And yes, the proponents of ICT4D are right: ICTs, when implemented thoughtfully and respectfully – keeping the needs of the recipients at the fore – can be powerful agents of change in the fight to reduce poverty and improve the lives of marginalized peoples in developing nations.

In his 2008 presentation, UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples – The Role of ICTs, Jesse Fidler listed various possibilities for ICT to actively engage the indigenous communities and realize their visions.

And as far as preserving the pristine, isolated local culture is concerned, Professor Amartya Sen perhaps summed it up best in his talk at the 3rd IDRC/ Harvard Forum on the future of information and communication technology for development (ICT4D) when he said that there is “no such thing as ‘unaided culture”, or ”culture that exists in isolation”.


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