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Is the Internet increasing or reducing global cultural diversity?

December 2, 2009

Some 10 years ago I was kindly invited by Sim Kwan Yang to give a public talk in Kuala Lumpur about my anthropological research in his native Sarawak, on the island of Borneo. Although I forget the title of the talk, I do remember having to think on my feet about cultural diversity during the lively Q&A session. I don’t mean cultural diversity in its current normative acceptation (at least in Britain’s left-liberal bastions: BBC, Guardian, schools, universities, etc.) as a good thing we should all treasure and defend, but rather as a complex, ill-defined problem demanding historical and anthropological investigation. I can’t go into any depths here, but a big part of the problem is, of course, that social and cultural theorists are far from agreed on what, if anything, is meant by ‘culture’. Indeed, many theorists have suggested that we would be better off without this impossible-to-define term. (Yes, as a left-liberal, bicultural Brit-ish citizen I, too, treasure and defend cultural diversity, but that still doesn’t solve this elusive problem, it only makes it harder to study objectively).

At any rate, if I remember correctly, my impromptu response to questions about the long-term consequences of social change for cultural diversity in Borneo went as follows:

1. Malaysia and Indonesia – which share with Brunei the island of Borneo – are both thicker culture areas than Borneo. In other words, their Borneo territories are encapsulated within the sphere of cultural influence of their respective mainlands: Peninsular Malaysia in the case of Sabah and Sarawak, Java in the case of Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo). The international border that runs through Borneo is far more than an arbitrary product of colonialism: after long decades of colonial and postcolonial rule on either side of the border, it has also become a cultural border separating two distinctive cultural orders. Some hybridity takes place near the border, but the people and their way about them, the road infrastructure, traffic system, school system, media landscape, material culture, etc., etc., leave you in no doubt that you are either in Indonesia or in Malaysia.

2. Although there has been a great loss of linguistic, ritual, religious, etc., diversity across Borneo’s hinterlands accompanying the C20 spread of mass schooling, labour migration, monetisation, clock-and-calendar time, standard Malay, mass media, etc., at the same time we have seen a marked growth of modern, urban-based cultural production. For example, Iban pop has been flourishing since the 1980s, especially in the Sibu area where a number of Chinese-owned record labels compete in an expanding indigenous market.

In my book Media and Nation Building (2006) I deal with the first trend, namely the development of distinctive culture areas within what were once (semi-) arbitrary colonial borders, with the history of media among the Iban in Sarawak as my case study. I am now thinking I should broach the second question, that is, the seeming paradox of a planet becoming ever more culturally diverse (think, for instance, of the explosive diversification of digital media practices over the past 10 to 15 years) whilst at the same time it is losing much of its cultural diversity as ‘modernisation’ reaches ever further into the rural hinterlands – a process well under way for at least 500 years. So, are we gaining one kind of (sub)cultural diversity (urban, digital, young…) at the expense of another (rural, non-digital, aging…)? Or is this a crude dichotomy that conceals contradictory processes, e.g. indigenous activists, regional secessionists, white supremacists and others who have harnessed new media technologies to proudly reassert their cultural distinctiveness?

Perhaps one way of keeping the inquiry manageable would be to focus on the Internet in relation to global cultural diversity. Is the Internet a force for global cultural diversity or, on the contrary – as my friend the cultural sociologist Simon Speck fears – a force for cultural homogenisation under the banner of unfettered ‘choice’ and ‘user-generated content’? (YouTube may seem very diverse, but it could be argued that this purported diversity comes in tightly packaged standard bundles). As the Internet, like earlier technologies before it, becomes increasingly mundane and ubiquitous in many parts of the globe, do its cultural effects and influences become more elusive to research? What about regions and countries with low Internet penetration? Are they embarked on different paths of cultural change that are shaped more by mobile phones than by the Internet? Or are mobile phones themselves culturally inextricable from the Internet? Finally, what about the cultural distinctiveness of states, e.g. Malaysia, Turkey, Britain, Chile? Is the Internet making any difference to this fundamental form of modern cultural uniqueness, one dependent on territorial sovereignty? (My guess: not much).

Map source: http://www.borneo.com.au/

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12 Comments leave one →
  1. December 2, 2009 2:09 pm

    As always you raise a host of important and researchable questions even as “the field” expands and changes. The new media appears to be a “double edged sword” (another crude dichotomy) offering both huge opportunities for emerging cultural diversity as well as providing pathways for homogenization. I look forward to your second book! In the meantime, can you tell me who is working on these questions but specifically in relation to their effects on women and how women are using the new media as “empowering”?

    • December 3, 2009 3:58 pm

      Thanks Barbara. That’s a very good question. I can’t think of anyone offhand who’s working on Internet and cultural diversity from within women’s studies, a research area I’m not very familiar with, but wouldn’t mind hearing from readers of this blog who can recommend literature.

      • December 4, 2009 10:44 am

        PS All that springs to mind is the research by Susan Herring, Nancy Baym and others showing the distinctive ways in which men and women engage in computer-mediated communication (CMC), but again this is not my area of expertise.

  2. December 2, 2009 3:36 pm

    It’s an interesting question, though a bit on the technological deterministic side of things. In my own interviews with internet users in Canada it turned out that the answer to the question of ‘what kind of content/ services we use the internet for’ depends on the context of the interviewee. Although I haven’t developed an argument around it, it seems to me that one way to think of it is that the more culturally open and cosmopolitan a person (whether because they are spatially mobile or because they uphold particular values), the more culturally diverse their internet use would be. It was interesting to note that the more one person had people from all over the world in their Fb network of friends, the more they were talking about actively looking for globally available content and not being interested in whatever counts as ‘national’ content. This doesn’t mean that the person necessarily becomes ‘less nationalistic’ but that the person has a predisposition for cultural diversity and may be actively seeking it.

    I have to totally agree with you: the concept of culture – and particularly when qualified as ‘national culture’ – is difficult and, in fact, not very helpful. However, the idea of national culture (or ethnically/ nationally bound culture) is very pervasive in our own understanding of the world, and therefore what we imagine our ‘national/ ethnic culture’ to be frames a lot of our choices and actions.

    • December 4, 2009 11:21 am

      Hi Delia, many thanks for those thoughts.

      1. Yes, perhaps my wording makes it all sound rather technologically deterministic. A more
      apt, if cumbersome, wording may be: In what ways, if any, are Internet practices and processes contributing to an increase and/or reduction of global cultural diversity? (I say ‘and/or’ because I’m assuming that they may well be contributing to both). In other words, it’s not a matter of ‘the Internet’ simply ‘doing’ something to a passively recipient world society.

      2. On the question of ‘national cultures’ I think we are only partially in agreement. While we both agree that this term brings together two problematic notions (‘nation’ and ‘culture’), I would part company with you on your tacit ‘imagined community’ (Anderson) model of contemporary sovereign states. As I have argued in Media and Nation Building, I regard modern sovereign states (Chile, Turkey, Malaysia, Eire, China, etc.) as the prime culture areas in the current postcolonial and post-Soviet era. These states are far more than ‘imagined communities’ (a notion that I think we’ve overused for more than 20 years) – they are distinctive culture areas with their own ways of going about politics, law, public administration, infrastructure, language, education, health, mass media, etc. When you cross an interstate border – say from the UK to France – you are entering a distinct culture area: British and French citizen-residents don’t just ‘imagine’ that they live in different cultural universes – they actually do actively inhabit and reproduce those sharply differentiated universes. What part do internet practices and processes play in the maintenance or erosion of these territorially-based ways of life? My working hypothesis is that they largely help to maintain their distinctiveness.

  3. Lusine permalink
    December 5, 2009 3:22 pm

    John,
    thanks for discussing this issue. At the moment I am trying to write an essay on the same question- Is Internet contributing to an increase and/or reduction of global cultural diversity? So I was more than happy to read your thoughts.

    Could you please advise some books/articles on the topic (understanding culture, national culture, technology and cultural diversity…) ?

    Thanks in advance.

  4. Primrose Mason permalink
    March 29, 2010 7:54 am

    Thanks John for your research on Ntion building and especially on the state of Sarawak. I have used your article for my literature review. I am presently doing my Doctorate in mass communication at a local university here in kuala Lumpur.I am going to do a researchon Malaysian Cultural Diversity from a journalist’s perspective. I hope you can give me some advice on what materials(books journal etc)i can use to get started on my first three chapters.

    Thanks,

    Primrose Mason

  5. March 29, 2010 2:07 pm

    Hi Primrose

    Thanks for your note. I’d be very interested to know more about your project. These are some of the texts that spring to mind (and search engine!):

    Andaya, B.W. and Andaya, L.Y. 1982. A History of Malaysia, London: Macmillan.

    Anuar, M.K. 2004. Muzzled? The media in Mahathir’s Malaysia. In: Welsh, B. (ed.), Reflections: the Mahathir Years, pp. 486-493, Washington, D.C.: Southeast Asian Studies Program, Johns Hopkins University, School of Advanced and International Studies.

    Boulanger, C.L. 2002. Inventing tradition, inventing modernity: Dayak identity in urban Sarawak. Asian Ethnicity 3, 221-231.

    Gomez, E.T. and Jomo, K.S. 1997. Malaysia’s Political Economy: Politics, Patronage and
    Profits, Melbourne: Cambridge University Press.

    E.T. Gomez (ed.) The State of Malaysia: Ethnicity, Equity and Reform, pp. 79-104. London and New York: Routledge.

    Social imaginaries : a working model for analysing the internet’s wider implications for the nation / Susan Mee Mee Leong, PhD thesis, 2009

    Nair-Venugopal, S. (2001) Language Choice and Communication in Malaysian Business. Bangi: Penerbit UKM.

    Nain, Z. 1996. The impact of the international marketplace on the organisation of Malaysian television. In: French, D. and Richards, M. (eds.), Contemporary Television: Eastern Perspectives, pp. 157-180. London: Sage.

    Seymour, J. M. 1974. The rural school as an acculturating institution: the Iban of Malaysia.
    Human Organization 333, 277-290.

    Seymour, J.M. 1977. Urbanization, schooling and psychocultural adaptation: Iban students of Sarawak, Malaysia. Sarawak Museum Journal XXV, 177-200.

    Yeoh Seng Guan (ed) 2010 Media, Culture and Power in Malaysia, London and New York: Routledge.

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