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Does technology change culture or culture change technology?

Does technology change culture or culture change technology?

Tim Finin, 1:00pm 10 July 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.

10 Responses to “Does technology change culture or culture change technology?”

  1. brad mccaul Says:

    I would take exception the notion that technology is not changing culture.

    Simply put it changes it by controlling. Technology is the predominate medium by which we are increasingly getting things done. It is in this way that technology, quit ubiquitously, shapes culture. It is naive to think otherwise. Let me explain, if your medium/tool to build a house is only a hammer, then that will radically determine how you approach building that house. Contrastingly, if you have a hammer, a saw, and a drill your approach will again be informed, and radically so, by these mediums. If you look at technology as a content, like a cell phone, a cell phone which reminds owners of prayer time and holds calls for 20 minutes then yes culture shapes technology. But, if you look at technology as a process, a process that defines and nurtures the way people make contact, then technology not only changes culture but it changes it in a very particular direction–a de-humanizing direction i might add.

    It is certainly in our interest that culture does take time to change. However reassuring on the surface, the fact that culture moves slowly means that it moves without us noticing it, without our attentional focus, and consequently is actually cause for even greater anxiety. So, don’t let go of that anxiety, an anxiety that i share with you, just yet.

    Let me give you another example, the technology of interactive voice recognition, which enables a computer to process voice into text and text into voice, has to come to shape the way many companies do business. The idea is, as a company, we can provide all kinds of services to our clients without ever having to employ a real person and therefor save tons of money and provide good service at the same time. Well, you have used these systems, what is your experience like with them? If it is at all like mine, it is extremely frustrating. Does it save me time from having to wait on hold for a live person? yes. Does it provide some information that may be useful to me? yes. Does it respond in a satisfying way to 90% of my calls? no. It actually builds frustration because it means i will have to spend an extra 15-20 minutes before i can get to someone who might be able to help me.

    Lets not stop there. We have to realize that companies started asking themselves what kind questions do people call us with and can we write a program that will respond to those kind questions–that is to say can we write a program that provides people with the “INFORMATION” they need.

    You see technology has us thinking that what we need is information, that life can be programed, scripted, and controlled with the right set of tools or techniques. Technology does not distinguish between information and knowledge, much less information and wisdom.

    Lets continue on with our example, I am now about to finish an unsatisfying conversation with a live customer service representative, who often has a limited facility with the English language, and despite the fact that they were clearly unable to give me what I needed, will read their script, with the noted appropriate positive affect, by saying

    Thank you so much for calling MCI, it has been my pleasure to help you today, is their anything else I may
    assist you with today, Mr. McCaul ? (Because as you know they are instructed to get your name). Well, thank
    you for calling MCI and have a nice day.

    You get off the phone on one of these experiences and wonder what just happened and why I don’t feel as rosy and wonderful as the customer service rep I just spoke to. They think, because they used the right words—and we start to think that we should also—that we just had an experience and a positive one at that. We do not get it, using the right words, having the right language, following the script, does not substitute for an actual discussion or real experience between two response-able persons. Did they give me the information to all my questions, yes. Did they help me, no. Did they do there job, yes, because their job was simply to give me information. No, or that is not something i can help you with, is information to my questions. It is information, but it is not knowledge that i can use to solve my problem, answer my question, or resolve my issue.

    i apologize for the length of this example but it points out how a very common and prevalent technology not only shapes how we go about conducting our business, but even more important how we frame the questions of our business and their solutions, how we come to think about what is important and what is not, and worst of all, how we come to think about ourselves in the process–Dehumanized, lowered to the level of a brain only worth the information it holds.

  2. tim hardaway Says:

    well said Brad—- exactly correct—frankly tech is often misapplied in organizations being a cheap easy substitute for real community— which tech aint!

  3. Technology & Culture « Jacquelyn’s Blog Says:

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  4. messias mateus Matsinhe Says:

    For me I thing that the question can be regarded in both sides, in the sense that through the application of new technology, we are building a new way of looking at things and by doing that we are at the same time bringing up a new culture.

  5. mwa haha Says:

    i think technology is changing culture

    with all the cellphone and laptops and ipod and xboxes and everything else things have become easier to do and easier to communicate

    but they dont do the same thing you do when people didnt have google or facebook or have an app for everything
    people put aside an hour or two just to go on the internet when people that dont have it put aside that time going outside and exploring or play with friends
    now, i dont have time to read the whole thing of brads comment, so i dont know what he said but i did read the first sentence and your wrong.

  6. mwa haha Says:

    and culture is changing technology, ok im done.

  7. Does culture shape technology? « Jude Research Blog Says:

    […] Does technology change culture or culture change technology? by Tim Finin – July 10, 2006… […]

  8. WINDY Says:

    in my opinion, actually technology had change culture..

  9. Tim Stevens Says:

    Dr. McCaul is spot on correct with his post above. I shudder to think of the dehumanizing aspects of this lazy confidence about tech and community. It is a poor substitute for real connection. Thanks Brad.

  10. Susan Lucas "Bryant" Says:

    As Mr. Stevens notes in his above post, “SPOT ON” Dr. McCaul! It’s certainly good to hear your words,opinions,examples albeit via cyberspace!!! What a whirlwind journey we are on…..A bit frightening to imagine what lies ahead for our children, grandchildren, etc…..Will they even know/have the basic social concept of looking another straight in the eye or understand how to speak from the heart? Again, spot on Brad McCaul!!