Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Culture, technology and globalization

According to Thatcher, there are four levels of cultural and rhetorical patterns that determine how a new technology will be assimilated into a culture. These include the broader cultural context, the local/regional context, the specific organizational culture, and the personalities of those within the organization (385).

I like this framework in the sense that it can give the author of a study like Thatcher's a way to organize his or her findings. However, I also think this discrete four-category system is a little too neat to take as reality. Thatcher gives a nod to the fact that the last factor, individual personalities, are influenced by all the others. I would argue that all four categories are influenced by all four other categories. Further, I think it's very difficult to take any cultural artifact and place it in one category because, besides the fact that all are intertwined, culture is ever-changing. But, I think these four categories can still be useful so long as we recognize their limitations. (The same applies, I think, to Appadurai's scapes, which are mentioned in the Slack and Wise chapter on globalization.)

In the culture present in the Mexican maquilas, legitimization of processes was an important purpose--arguably the most important purpose--of the technical document. The technical document is not there to actually relate the process, but rather to reinscribe power. The process, then, is "taught through oral and hierarchical methods" (402). The author seems somewhat critical of this approach; I don't see an inherent problem in it. The power-establishing purpose of the technical document is somewhat more problematic; I'll discuss that in a moment.

Thatcher also discusses another characteristic of the culture of the maquilas that he seems critical of. He gets at this point by drawing on Hofstede's conception of power distance, which refers to the "ability of two people with different power and authority to influence each other" (387). A broad cross-section of Mexican culture (though, obviously, Mexican culture is not a monolith) apparently placed the country among the highest in terms of having a high power-distance socialization. "Rarely were subordinates in positions to influence training" (396). This is related to the fact that technical documents are encoded as objects of institutional power rather than as objects intended for the sharing of knowledge. Thatcher suggests that Mexico's high ranking in terms of collective values contributes to this hierarchical approach. I'd be particularly interested to hear more on the research he discusses about collectivist-type cultures being different, because it seems to me that collectivity as a value would precipitate access to information for all. This is obviously not the case.

This is the point at which Thatcher's observations become problematic for me. I resist making value judgments about a culture that is not my own. I don't want to say that the Mexican maquila workers and writers need to alter their relationship and use technical documents to help disseminate knowledge. From my perspective, this is a catch-22. By dictating that the Mexican technical communicators should be more democratic, I am assuming the same sort of dictatorial authority that they have assumed in order to create documents that reinscribe power. (Actually, I think my action would be even more colonizing, as I would be intruding into a society I do not understand.)

So far as taking action in a case like this, I suppose I ascribe to the notion of the global referred to by Slack and Wise, which demands that we "critically engage the workings of a complex global technological assemblage" (189). We need to do a lot more learning before we do anything else. It was interesting to me--and it certainly rang true--that Slack and Wise see antiglobalization movements de-emphasizing their use of and connection to technology. It seems that what we (in the Western sense) define as technology is equivalent to the forces driving "evil" globalization. Thus, a resistance to learning this new strategy allows activists to resist.

In an interesting connection to Slack and Wise's note that the global affects the local and vice versa, Sun's article on user localization shows how the local affects the global and also how personalities can move straight to the top of Thatcher's food chain to influence the broader social dimensions of how a technology is applied. I recently had my students in English 249 read parts of this article, and they keyed in on how the technology (texting) was used differently to make meaning in different locales. In the Western case study, the participant used texting as a comfort (relating it to chocolate, a "comfort food") while the Eastern case study participant used texting to convey messages with deep societal meaning. (Here is the page with responses from my students to this article. You have to scroll to the bottom to see responses from Sept. 17-18.)

I'm struggling to place these case studies over the framework de Certeau gives us in terms of production. He argues for two productions: the first being equivalent to creation and the second being consumption, a sort of re-creation. By poaching a product and re-creating it in one's own context, othered communities find a tactic (as opposed to a strategy) to gain power. "Many everyday practices are tactical in character" (xix). I suppose what we see in these case studies is grounded in the original production of the technology. Each participant then uses a different tactic in her consumption of the technology, and those tactics reinforce the power of the culture she is working within.

I also thought the juxtaposition of de Certeau's Expert and Philosopher was highly interesting. "In the Expert, competence is transmitted into social authority; in the Philosopher, ordinary questions become a skeptical principle in a technical field" (7). I think this situation really resonates within English Studies. We often find ourselves wanting to be expert (or maybe I'm speaking for myself), only to rediscover again and again that I am "walking on air ... far from the scientific ground" (8). Being a philosopher, a questioner, is an easier claim to make (like that of the generalist), if not an easier job to do. But is it as valuable? Or, as de Certeau suggests (and critiques) on page 9, is it possible to be the Philosopher as Expert? And if so, what does this mean?

Works referenced above include:
  • Michel de Certeau's "The Practice of Everyday Life"
  • "Intercultural Rhetoric, Technology Transfer, and Writing in U.S.-Mexico Border Maquilas" in TCQ by Barry Thatcher
  • Jennifer Daryl Slack and J. MacGregor Wise's "Culture+Technology"
  • "The Triumph of Users: Achieving Cultural Usability Goals with Localization" in TCQ by Huatong Sun

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