April 13, 2009
Culture and Technology in the Balance
Globalization is driven by particular ways of feeling, thinking, and acting. Because humanistic intellectuals are good at understanding those experiences, they have a special opportunity to involve themselves with reforms. This includes imagining ways in which globalization can become increasingly compatible with the aspirations of large numbers of people and with smarter uses of human, financial, and natural capital. Criticism does not technically drive Earthly motion, but culturally, criticism does help make the world go round.
The links between ideas and actions are, of course, complicated. Legal and social theories influence the ways in which we intentionally think about how we ought to live. They also influence, often in less intentional and more accidental ways, how the world actually changes. Formal theories are not always at work in political, social, and economic developments. Indeed, knowing with certainty when they are at work — and knowing which ones are at work — is exceedingly difficult. Sometimes change is driven by nothing more than a person’s attitude, or by a group’s ethos. The world is a perplexing place.
Alas, the cultural prosthetics of technology do not make the acts of awareness, comprehension, and intervention any easier. Yet technological and scientific developments, especially recently and especially now, are involved with some of the most important political and socioeconomic changes in the world: resource depletion, peer production, health disparities, and arms proliferation. The conflicting ways in which the world’s developing regions interact or do not interact with these challenges is consequential to human welfare in large regions of the world, if not everywhere. Where can one look to get a sense of the most important ideas now being offered with regard to this particular class of issues in globalization? Where does one intervene, if necessary?
Last year, the World Bank released a report, “Technology Diffusion in the Developing World”, which praises rapid technological advancements in the developing world, but also indicates a need for developing nations to become more receptive to foreign technology. The Bank’s economist, Alan Gelb, commented that “governments may need to intervene directly to encourage the rapid diffusion of technology and a domestic culture of ‘new-to-the-market’ innovation.” Presently, the report says, technical illiteracy and poor business climates stifle the “absorption” of new techniques and ideas.
The 2008 report comes at a time when, during the past few years, The World Bank has begun taking culture seriously. In the past, the Bank tended to ignore the implications of culture in economic development. When one glances through the 2008 report, one wonders whether its writers understand the many reasons why culture is important, aside from its potential to promote or inhibit the adoption of foreign technologies. One also wonders whether the writers of the report value the distinction between appropriate and inappropriate technologies: Just because an idea is good in Uppsala does not necessarily mean it will also be good in Lusaka. And it appears from the story of Bhutan that raising a society’s receptivity to outside ideas is not always and unequivocally a good thing.
But at what point does criticism become a hindrance to ethical inquiry and to figuring out what actually works? It could turn out that the Bank’s vision of rapid technology diffusion is exactly what the world needs in order to respond to the big challenges. How else would William McDonough’s and Michael Braungart's “extravagant gesture” become a reality for global industry? When one considers what is actually required to mitigate and adapt to climate change, one is tempted to set aside the concerns of multiculturalism and self-determination and concentrate instead on getting low-carbon ideas and techniques in the minds and hands of as many people as possible.
The real choice we face is probably not so stark, for globalization demands that we find a balance. We should be clear about what is at stake and avoid conflating the risks. Clearly, there are situations that call for cultural change, even when some local people resist that change, or even when that same kind of change is bad somewhere else. Being a local person does not necessarily mean that one has good policy ideas. Other situations might call for cultural preservation. The word, “preservation,” has unfortunate museum-like connotations, but here it refers to the sustaining of attitudes and behaviors that are most appropriate in a specific context. Making all of these decisions requires cultural fluency that takes time to cultivate.
If criticism helps make the world go round, and thus if criticism is as important as I have claimed that it is, then the intersection of technological and economic development deserves a great deal of criticism. It is not only physics that offers something to say about a planet on the move. The humanities are also critical to Earthly equilibrium and balance.
Thanks to Marja Mogk for her feedback.
Posted by Jonathan Pfeiffer at 12:30 AM | Permalink