2004 Conference Theme:
Off the shelf or from the ground up?
ICTs and cultural marginalization, homogenization or hybridization

The biennial CATaC conference series continues to provide an international forum for the presentation and discussion of current research on how diverse cultural attitudes shape the implementation and use of information and communication technologies (ICTs). The conference series brings together scholars from around the globe who provide diverse perspectives, both in terms of the specific culture(s) they highlight in their presentations and discussions, and in terms of the discipline(s) through which they approach the conference theme. The first conference in the series was held in London in 1998, the second conference in Perth in 2000, and the third conference in Montreal in 2002.

Understanding the role of culture in how far minority and/or indigenous cultural groups may succeed - or fail - in taking up ICTs designed for a majority culture is obviously crucial to the moral and political imperative of designing ICTs in ways that will not simply reinforce such groups' marginalization. What is the role of culture in the development of ICTs "from the ground up" - beginning with the local culture and conditions - rather than assuming dominant "off the shelf" technologies are appropriate? Are the empowering potentials of ICTs successfully exploited among minority and indigenous groups, and/or do they rather engender cultural marginalization, cultural homogenization or cultural hybridization? 

Original full papers (especially those which connect theoretical frameworks with specific examples of cultural values, practices, etc.) and short papers (e.g. describing current research projects and preliminary results) are invited. Topics of particular interested include but are not limited to:

1. Culture: theory and praxis

While a number of important theories concerning culture and technology have come to the foreground in CMC literature and previous CATaC conferences (e.g., Bourdieu, Hofstede, Hannerz, etc.), "culture" remains a highly problematic concept, one that both plays a central role in theory and practice while it also stubbornly resists easy definition. A defining theme for the CATaC conferences - one we continue with CATaC'04 - is the on-going effort to better understand what "culture" may mean, especially as culture may be empirically examined in the interplay of communication mediated through ICTs.

Discussions of "culture" are invited, especially as these are informed by the praxis of seeking to facilitate cross-cultural communication with ICTs. In particular: 

  • These intersections of culture, technology, and communication are fruitfully examined not only in relation to computer-mediated communication, but also in conjunction with other new technologies such as cellular phones, Simple Messaging Service, satellite TV, etc. These technologies are often more significant than CMC (obviously, the Web and the Net) in regions - and thus cultures - with limited technology infrastructures. Theoretical/practical discussions of projects involving such technologies are invited, especially as these may highlight important differences between the cultural dimensions and implications of the uses of these technologies vs. those that prevail in regions with more extensive technology infrastructures.
  • Some countries and regions are more multicultural than others (e.g., Australia, Switzerland, and, in its own way, the European Union), and thus present distinctive domains within which the intersections of culture, technology, and communication may be of more immediate relevance and urgency than in less multi-cultural societies. Projects and discussions that help us understand the distinctive role of culture in such multi-cultural settings - including how far ICTs contribute to hybridizing cultures in these settings - are encouraged.
  • Minority/indigenous cultural groups likewise represent distinctive opportunities to examine the role of cultural and communicative variables as these affect the implementation and uses of ICTs. Understanding the role of culture in how far minority and/or indigenous cultural groups may succeed - or fail - in taking up ICTs designed for a majority culture is obviously crucial to the moral and political imperative of designing ICTs in ways that will not simply reinforce such groups' marginalization. Projects and discussion that highlight the role of culture in the success and/or failure of efforts to exploit the empowering potentials of ICTs among minority and indigenous groups are invited, especially as these detail the development of such efforts "from the ground up" (i.e., by beginning with the local culture and conditions, rather than assuming dominant "off-the-shelf" technologies are appropriate).
2. Culture and economy

How does commercialization of CMC technologies - most obviously, the Net and the Web - shape the prevailing cultures conveyed and favored by these technologies? How do such commercialized "virtual cultures" sustain and/or undermine local cultural values and identities?

3. Alternative models for ICT diffusion

As the dangers of "computer-mediated colonization" (i.e., of imposing specific cultural values and communicative preferences, as embedded in the design and implementation of ICTs, upon "target" cultures) are increasingly recognized, there is likewise a growing awareness of the importance of developing non-colonizing implementations of ICTs that seek to fulfill the beneficent promises of these new technologies while also preserving and enhancing local cultural values and preferences. (Examples of these described at CATaC'02 included open knowledge networks like One World <URL> and other peer-to-peer networking projects that circumvented otherwise central - and culturally dominant - powers.)

Descriptions of such projects - including projects involving software (e.g., CSCW systems) and interface design (HCI) - are invited, especially as these
(a) make clear the problematic cultural issues initially faced by prevailing models for design and implementation;
(b) account for how the authors/researchers/theorists/designers sought to overcome the dangers of computer-mediated colonization; and/or
(c) report on research/work (including work in progress) that assesses how far the alternative model/design succeeds in avoiding cultural imperialism.

The role of governments and activists in culture, technology and communication

Both government- and NGO-sponsored projects directly involve the use of ICTs in communication with minority/indigenous cultures. Descriptions of such projects are encouraged, especially as these:

(a) bring to the foreground observed interactions between different cultural values and communicative preferences as these work in the design, implementation, and responses to ICTs used in a given project, and

(b) discuss how these observed interactions support, contradict, and/or force us to revise specific theoretical approaches to ICT design, the role of culture and communication in technology diffusion, etc. 

ICTs and cultural hybridity

Nietzsche noted at the end of the 19th century that as our awareness of and interactions with other cultures grows, we living increasingly in an age of comparison - and, we can add, of hybridity, i.e., the self-conscious and unconscious blendings of aspects of two or more cultures. On the one hand, such hybridization can reflect free and productive choices, creative intermixings that contribute to an enhanced self-identity and richer national self-consciousness. On the other hand, such hybridization may also amount to homogenization, as many important elements of one culture are swept away by the dominant values and orientations of a globalizing culture ("McWorld"). Are there ways - accounted for not only in theory, but also demonstrated in praxis - that ICTs may contribute to a hybridization process that avoids homogenization (as another form of cultural imperialism)?

ICTs and intercultural communication

Nations such as Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Thailand, and others, have long managed to maintain a distinctive cultural identity while at the same time fostering a cosmopolitanism that allows them to succeed economically and politically. Such cosmopolitanism is marked by fostering bi- (or even tri-) lingualism, (usually nonviolent) appropriation of aspects of "other" cultures (e.g., the syncretic Buddhism of Thailand that incorporates Hinduism and Chinese religions).  These sorts of cosmopolitan cultures - i.e., ones that retain distinctive cultural identity while simultaneously engaging in the "other" cultures of the world - were described at CATaC'98 by Thai philosopher Soraj Hongladarom as conjunctions of "thick" and "thin" cultures, i.e., hybrids of distinctive local cultural identity (thick) and a larger, globally shared (thin) cultural identity.

Critical to these "hybrid cosmopolitans" is the ability of people to communicate comfortably in more than one language - and, thereby, to be aware of how to succeed (at least modestly) in intercultural communication. Such communication involves not simply an ability to translate terms from one language to another, but an awareness of what is culturally appropriate, ranging from terms and idioms that may be acceptable in one's own culture but offensive elsewhere, to in/appropriate gestures, body language, etc. 

As ICTs dramatically accelerate our ability to engage with one another cross-culturally - do they help us learn to communicate interculturally? And/or: are ICTs, because they are designed by and embed the cultural and communicative values of specific nations and regions, inevitably limited as tools of such intercultural communication? Stated positively: can ICTs help its users become more effective intercultural communicators - and thereby contribute to a process of cultural hybridization that sustains local cultural identities and avoids cultural homogenization.

Culture, communication and e-learning

In the rush to get courses online, some of the challenges of online teaching and learning are often ignored. Too often virtual learning environments (VLEs) are adopted because of their technical innovativeness and little thought is given to integrating the medium with learning objectives and pedagogical strategies, and taking into account a multicultural audience. For these reasons, global education typically lacks social and collaborative activities with the unintended consequence of feelings of social and cultural isolation. In other words, technology can separate rather than connect students. Yet, more than any other teaching medium, virtual learning environments have the potential to fully exploit theories of social and active learning through communication, collaboration and cooperation.