• The culture of digital media

    I am based in the MSU Department of Anthropology and am designing a new online course “US culture 101” for foreign students. This brings up at least one big question: how relevant are cross cultural issues for designing and using digital media in the humanities and social sciences? Although I’m focusing on an online course setting, a lot of these issues apply more broadly to other digital humanities settings.

    Two types of discussion could flow from this and could be worked into a variety of formats this weekend. I’m more than happy to do a short presentation, or work to blend any of this into a larger discussion, or even just discuss the big questions over lunch, coffee, etc.

    1. Practical issues What is our experience with these issues, are there some general problem areas to be aware of? Discussion board usage rules and interface design are two possible examples. How do we identify and deal with situations where digital media might be culturally inappropriate? How do we use knowledge of cultural preferences to design/adapt better digital media for a given set of users? Example: foreign students shy about their English might not participate in a face to face class, how to structure a discussion board to encourage participation there?

    2. Big questions Are some digital media culture free, transparent tools easily adapted to various cultures? Or are most digital media embedded with an invisible cultural code, thus imposing certain cultural patterns on others? For example, not to get too academic, but one could argue Facebook reflects and reinforces a very Western, individualistic notion of personhood. Or are digital media producing a new cultural environment we all must adapt to, leading to multiple new cultural forms, or to some kind of global youth/internet culture? For example, is the US government right, naive, or imperialistic in promoting Twitter as a democratizing force in Cuba and Iran? How do we talk about culture in a way that avoids stereotypes and clarifies the interactions between culture and technology? Finally, could incorporating different cultural perspectives lead to new, exciting types of digital media—a partial example of this might be the Ushahidi platform.

    Quotes to think about
    To provide a more concrete idea of what I am talking about, here are quotes addressing some of these issues (not all representing my viewpoints):
    The preconditions of cyberculture usually involve the linguistic and communication norms of Anglo-American societies in which the aggressive, competitive individual is enshrined.
    Online task time performance of users will be faster when using Web sites created by designers from their own national culture.
    The notion of ‘culture’ as an essential attribute of individuals and groups, owed to national or ethnic background, is critiqued in this article as unhelpful to the project of understanding how diverse participants in virtual learning environments (VLEs) individually and jointly construct a culture of interaction.
    No task of information management is without its theoretical subtext, just as no act of instrumental application is without its ideological aspects. We know that the “technical” tasks we perform are themselves acts of interpretation. Intellectual decisions that enable even such fundamental activities as keyword searching are fraught with interpretative baggage. We know this – just as surely as we understand that the front page of any search engine (the world according to “Yahoo!”) is as idiosyncratic as the Chinese Emperor’s Encyclopedia famously conjured by Borges and commented upon by Foucault. Any “order of things” is always an expression of human foibles and quirks, however naturalized it appears at a particular cultural moment. We often pretend otherwise in order to enact the necessary day-to-day “job” in front of us, bracketing out the (sometimes egregious) assumptions that allow computational methods (such as markup or data models) to operate effectively.
    Many humanities principles developed in hard-fought critical battles of the last decades are absent in the design of digital contexts. Here is a short list: the subjectivity of interpretation, theoretical conceptions of texts as events (not things), cross-cultural perspectives that reveal the ideological workings of power, recognition of the fundamentally social nature of knowledge production, an intersubjective, mediated model of knowledge as something constituted, not just transmitted. For too long, the digital humanities, the advanced research arm of humanistic scholarly dialogue with computational methods, has taken its rules and cues from digital exigencies.

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