In which we explore how a rogue electron can destroy your culture

Of all the examples used this week to discuss intercultural communication, I was snared by Margaret Mead’s

outside technology : culture :: outside electron : atom .*

Mead’s research indicated that when a new technology is introduced into a culture (just as when an electron is shot into an atom,) the culture has three possible fates:

1) Absorb the new element and be changed by it,

2) Reject the new element and not be changed at all, or

3) Be destroyed by the intrusion.

The image is neat – easily visualized, with a patina of scientific rigidity contributed by the physics analogy. I am no physicist, and can’t without extensive googling tell you what will happen to an atom unfortunate enough to be bombarded with rogue electrons.But I will argue that Mead’s analogy stops short of telling the complete story of culture, technology and change, notably due to its unidirectionality. The focus is completely on the culture being bombarded, and disregards the changes wrought to the technology itself.

Back to the atomic example. When an atom is struck by an electron and absorbs it, the change is elemental (pun intended,) and the end result is a new particle which looks and acts differently (google says: an ion!)

This scenario does translate to culture and technology, especially with relation to those examples (cited by other bloggers last week,) wherein communication technology (eg: TV and the resultant US cable broadcasts,) change cultural functioning (eg: norms about family, achievement, and money,) to the extent that the original atom-culture is secondary to the newly hatched ion-culture.

What we have as a class failed to elaborate upon are those scenarios where, instead of an outside technology skewing local practice it is instead adapted to the local environment, molded into a form meant to enhance the sectors which are already being developed locally, often outside of the primary function it served in the inventor-culture.

An example which springs to mind is the use of cell-phones in rural Pakistan (where “89% of the population is unbanked but 62% use mobile phones” CNN,2010)  to allow people in rural areas better access to banking services, notably micro-financing, promoting small-business development.Cell phones and e-banking have been adapted to the rural Pakistani environment.

This, I argue, is a better integration of technology and culture – one in which technology use is shaped by a culture and finishes by enhancing existing societal structures rather than diverting or subjugating them.

*This example was cited in Weaver’s 2007 “The Evolution of International Communication as a Field of Study: A Personal Reflection.”

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