Is the Internet increasing or reducing global cultural diversity?
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/