Thursday, February 19, 2004

Global villages and global conflict

Marshall McLuhan "global village" has not happened as he envisaged. Where's the homogenization of cultures and values that was supposed to happen with the globalization of knowledge?

This has not happened, nor will it, partly because knowledge in itself is impotent without context, and geographical/cultural contexts are enormously diverse. Global knowledge is interpreted in a local context, and its meaning changes accordingly. So cultures become enriched and further evolve down their path, rather than mutating to mimic the source of the knowledge. (This is one of the challenges of e-learning -- while many vendors like to chant the trite cliché that content is king, without an acknowledgement of context the learning will often be ineffective, or at least may achieve results that diverge from those intended).

What is also happening, though, is that the globalization of knowledge (despite attempts to manipulate mass media) is causing individuals, groups, and movements to be smarter and more aware of their context in relation to the rest of the world. This not only reinforces a sense of unique identity, it brings about an (often subconscious) evaluation of their satisfaction with the status quo. You can't covet your neighbor's cow if you don't know he has a cow, if you don't know what a cow is, or if you don't know who your neighbor is. You can't think of yourself as materially better off than or morally superior to a foreigner if you have no idea what that foreigner's circumstances are. You can't comprehend the extent of your oppression or freedom, wealth or poverty, unless you are aware of alternatives to your condition. So, far from bringing about global harmony and homogenization, global knowledge can bring about increasing tensions within and between different cultures.

Anti-American protesters often wear US-iconed clothing, and feel no contradiction. We see the irony because from our perspective foreigners should not be allowed to reject an American policy without rejecting all other things American. In our simplistic view of the outside world, anyone who embraces one aspect of our culture while rejecting another cannot be taken seriously. The demonstrator sees no irony because in his context there is none. Lots of kid's who demonstrate against "America" are more sophisticated than we give them credit for -- or at least they are able to differentiate between the issues that they protest and the things that they like or respect. If kids in America protested something that the US administration was doing, would they have more credibility if they boycotted American goods and services too? I think not.

Wednesday, February 18, 2004

Culture and technology adoption

The adaptation and frequency of use of various technologies is based to a great extent on national cultural factors. But I think that while adoption of a technology may -- at times -- be ubiquitous across all members of a national culture, it's intensity of use is often very sporadic, with "power usage" being limited to a few demo/psychographic groups. In the US we all have microwave ovens, but I am willing to bet there are very few "power users" of them. We all have cell phones, but only certain segments of the population use SMS "texting" with any level of comfort. We all have the potential to IM, but some use it constantly, others turn it off. We all have VCR's but many of us can't even program them to record. It seems that everyone has an SUV, yet nobody ever goes off-road.. In the US at least, the national culture is often "gotta have it" rather than "gotta use it"; we consume the tools but not their applications.

It is true that corporate culture, when exported, often does not overcome local culture. Where I have found corporate cultures that appear partially at odds with (my perception of) local culture, it has rarely been because of some value system or behavior norms exported by a foreign parent. More often, it has been a strong set of norms inculcated within a company by one or more strong, influential leaders and his/her acolytes. Corporate culture is based on a bottom-up foundation, but it is molded by top-down examples. Respect for punctuality and respect for those whose time you waste when not punctual is either a strongly manifested corporate value or it is not -- no matter where in the world you may be.

Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Culture and punctuality

I have found in most cultures (including the US) that time has different states of focus depending on context. In group social engagements, unless there is an external delimiter (such as the movie starts at 3:00), the focus is very fuzzy -- nobody shows up at 8:00 sharp for a party. In one-on-one social engagements, the focus tends to be a little sharper depending on circumstances. In one-to-one or one-to-many business engagements, the "one" in the driving seat tends to have a much sharper focus than do individual members of the "many" -- a trainer likes to start on time, but the trainees are late; a salesperson likes to be punctual, but the potential buyer(s) have no problem keeping him/her waiting.

Our perceptions of what is "normal" behavior are determined by the habits of our most familiar peer groups. Over the years I have done a lot of work in various Latin American and Asian countries, South Africa, and most of Europe. In a business meeting context, the sensitivity to punctuality is always less cultural than contextual. And within that context you cannot make sweeping statements about national cultural attitudes to time because corporate culture plays a major role in guiding those attitudes. There are a couple of companies that I have worked with in Mexico and Brazil where I am always the last to arrive at a meeting that I am running. Conversely, there are companies in the US and UK where I have given up expecting more than 50% of participants to be punctual, and where participants come and go at will throughout the meeting. Generation and social set also plays into time consciousness. The post-MTV perpetually-looping CNN mode of communication has produced some people who have not only a limited attention span, but who assume that there IS no beginning or end, and believe they can always catch up no matter where they start or how often they get distracted. That fragmentation of attention span seems to be getting worse with the advent of SMS.

Is Internet time overwhelming national culture? As with the CNN comment above, I don't see it on a national scale. The digital divide (if we think of it in terms of those who have embraced connectedness v. those who just get by) is just getting wider. True, "smart mobs" can coalesce and disperse with split second precision. But these are funky folks on the fringe, not mainstream people. What may become more pervasive, particularly as mobile phones become smarter, is a blurring of the line that separates "presence" from "absence". Perhaps technology will be used to inflict punctuality -- you have an electronic window of opportunity to enter this meeting and if you miss it the virtual doors will be closed on you. Or perhaps the technology will make "punctuality" an unnecessary outmoded concept.