Does technology change culture or culture change technology?

July 10th, 2006

I attended the CRA’s Snowbird Conference last month. The most interesting talk was a keynote from Genevieve Bell (also see here) who is an anthropologist who works at Intel Research. One of her messages was that while we tend to think that technology changes culture, it’s more often the other way around. Cultures are very robust and change slowly. It’s typical for a new technology to be adapted within a culture and used to support existing patterns of behavior.

For example, she said that mobile phone manufacturers have developed popular phones for Muslim users that support their religious practices by (1) reminding them when it is time to pray, (2) orienting them towards Mecca and (3) disabling incoming calls for 20 minutes. She gave many other examples from Africa and Asia that showed how new technology is being used in ways that fit into the existing cultures.

I found the message reassuring. It’s easy to get worked up into a state of anxiety about what our modern world is doing to our societies. Human cultures are apparently more resilient than we naively assume.