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<nettime> Phil Agre: Building an Internet Culture

Date: Thu, 20 Nov 1997 10:24:34 -0800 (PST)
From: Phil Agre <pagre@weber.ucsd.edu>

<<A little context may help to explain this article.  I wrote it during
a visit to Brazil in August.  Brazil is, of course, a poor country with
lousy schools that is struggling to emerge from a long authoritarian
period.  The country has some excellent Internet people, mostly in the
universities, who understand very well what it takes for the Internet
to be used successfully.  It also has a dynamic non-governmental sector
that is already remarkably wired, considering the conditions they work
in.  But other parts of the country's establishment suffer with a bad case
of Internet hype -- you know, the illness that causes countries to spend
large amounts of money on machinery that will never be effectively used
for lack of training, infrastructure, and so on.  This disease feeds on
the same thing that technology hype always feeds on -- a fear of getting
left behind.  In Brazil's case, "getting left behind" has a particularly
profound meaning; many Brazilians really feel as if this is the make-or-
break period in which they will join the global economy or else collapse
back into the misery of the authoritarian era.  In that context, it's
easy to let the Internet turn into a kind of magic.  So when I spoke to
groups in Brazil, I tried to explain (as best I could) how to develop a
culturally appropriate strategy for Internet adoption.  When I mention
this idea in the United States, I frequently encounter a disgusted huff
and a lecture about how the United States adopted the Internet entirely
through the wonders of the free market and how the government should
just keep its hands off.  This is of course the most absurd falsehood.
It's just that the culturally appropriate Internet adoption strategy
that the United State employed seems invisible to us, precisely because
it was culturally appropriate.  Brazil is quite a different society with
quite a different culture, so it's worth revisiting the questions on a
fundamental level, asking how the Internet can establish critical mass
in that specific context.  I'm not an expert on Brazil, of course, but
I can try to articulate some principles that can be applied in each case.
These are my thoughts on the subject, mixed in with many warnings about
the dangers I saw in a more superficial approach.>>


  Building an Internet Culture

  Phil Agre
  Department of Communication
  University of California, San Diego
  La Jolla, California  92093-0503


  This article appeared in Portugese as "Criando uma cultura da
  Internet" in Revista USP (University of Sao Paulo), numero 35,
  Setembro a Novembro de 1997, "Dossie Informatica/Internet", pages

  Copyright 1997 by the author.  You may forward this article in
  electronic form for any non-commercial purpose until 12/31/97.

The Internet offers the hope of a more democratic society.  By
promoting a decentralized form of social mobilization, it is said,
the Internet can help us to renovate our institutions and liberate
ourselves from our authoritarian legacies.  The Internet does indeed
hold these possibilities, but they are hardly inevitable.  In order
for the Internet to become a tool for social progress, not a tool of
oppression or another centralized broadcast medium or simply a waste
of money, concerned citizens must understand the different ways in
which the Internet can become embedded in larger social processes.

In thinking about culturally appropriate ways of using technologies
like the Internet, the best starting-point is with people -- coherent
communities of people and the ways they think together.  Let us
consider an example.  A photocopier company asked an anthropologist
named Julian Orr to study its repair technicians and recommend the
best ways to use technology in supporting their work.  Orr took a
broad view of the technicians' lives, learning some of their skills
and following them around.  Each morning the technicians would come
to work, pick up their company vehicles, and drive to customers'
premises where photocopiers needed fixing; each evening they
would return to the company, go to a bar together, and drink beer.
Although the company had provided the technicians with formal
training, Orr discovered that they actually acquired much of their
expertise informally while drinking beer together.  Having spent the
day contending with difficult repair problems, they would entertain
one another with "war stories", and these stories often helped them
with future repairs.  He suggested, therefore, that the technicians
be given radio equipment so that they could remain in contact all
day, telling stories and helping each other with their repair tasks.

As Orr's story suggests, people think together best when they have
something important in common.  Networking technologies can often
be used to create a space for "communities of practice", like the
photocopier technicians, to think together in their own ways.  This
is perhaps the most common use of the Internet: discussion groups
organized by people who wish to pool their information and ideas about
a topic of shared interest.  At the same time, we should not consider
the Internet in isolation.  Regardless of whether they are located
in the same geographic region or distributed around the world, a
community's members will typically think together using several media,
such as the telephone, electronic mail, printed publications, and
face-to-face meetings, and the Internet is best conceived as simply
one component of this larger ecology of media.

Simply putting everyone on the Internet, however, will not ensure that
they share their thinking with one another.  A global accounting firm
tried to pool its employees' knowledge using an expensive software
package called Lotus Notes, but it was disappointed to discover that
the employees did not share anything very important.  A business
professor named Wanda Orlikowski discovered the problem: because the
employees were competing for promotions, they had an incentive to keep
their knowledge secret.  As this case suggests, many applications of
the Internet fail because the technology is poorly matched with the
culture of the institution that adopts it.

Social networks also influence the adoption of new technologies: if
the members of a community are already have social connections to
one another then they are more likely to benefit from technological
connections.  Every culture has its own distinctive practices for
creating and maintaining social networks, and a society will be
healthier in political and economic terms when these practices are
functioning well.  For example, it has long been a mystery why the
people of Sarajevo have maintained their tolerant, pluralistic culture
as terrible wars rage around them.  A visit to the city, however,
makes one reason entirely obvious: Sarajevo is organized around a
pedestrian mall about two kilometers long, and the people entertain
themselves by walking the length of this mall, meeting their
acquaintances, and stopping for coffee.  Social connections are thus
continually renewed, and people are led naturally to introduce their
friends to one another.  To take another example, Hungary remained
a relatively healthy society during the Soviet occupation largely
because of its well-developed social networks, based on a tradition
of close life-long relationships among the members of each gymnasium
class.  The social networks of Silicon Valley, by contrast, depend
on workplace connections.  People frequently move to new jobs, but
they assiduously maintain their relationships with their previous
coworkers, even when those coworkers get new jobs themselves, so that
they will have people to call the next time they are looking for work.

As these examples illustrate, the practices of social networking vary
considerably, and each practice is knitted into the larger workings
of the society.  Authoritarian societies will attempt to suppress
the cultural practices of networking, and democratic societies will
promote them.  Broad implementation of the Internet is one way to
promote social networking, and the existing practices of networking
can offer clues to the most effective ways of implementing the
Internet.  Of course, much of the spread of the Internet is
spontaneous: so long as the telephone system works reasonably well,
Internet service providers can spring up to offer Internet service
to anyone who wants it.  In an affluent society with strong social
networks, this might be enough.  But when resources are more
limited or the cultural practices of networking have been weakened
by a history of authoritarianism, state policies have some hope of
promoting Internet use.  The most obvious policy, simply plugging
everybody in, is far too expensive and does not address the social and
cultural issues.  It is much better, not to mention cheaper, to take
a modest, targeted approach.  Building on experience in the United
States and the analysis I have developed above, let me offer ten
conclusions that might guide a country's development of a culturally
appropriate Internet policy:

1. Resist the standard sales pitch for new technology.  This sales
pitch, which is found in every part of the world, plays on your
fears of being left behind by technological change.  It treats all
of your experience and common sense as obsolete things of the past,
and invites you to release your grip on the past by buying lots of
technology.  Unless you have a coherent plan that builds on your
experience and common sense, buying a lot of machinery will not save
you from being left behind.

2. Do not spend vast sums of money to buy machinery that you are
going to set down on top of existing dysfunctional institutions.
The Internet, for example, will not fix your schools.  Perhaps the
Internet can be part of a much larger and more complicated plan for
fixing your schools, but simply installing an Internet connection
will almost surely be a waste of money.

3. Focus on developing people, not machinery.  Learning how to use
the Internet is primarily a matter of institutional arrangements,
not technical skills.  Therefore, invite proposals for demonstration
projects that enable your institutions to learn how to use the
machinery.  Once the institutions are ready to digest large amounts
of machinery, the machinery will be cheaper.

4. Build Internet civil society.  Find those people in every sector
of society that want to use the Internet for positive social purposes,
introduce them to one another, and connect them to their counterparts
in other countries around the world.  Numerous organizations in other
countries can help with this.

5. Electronic mail is more important than technologies such as the
World Wide Web that employ sophisticated graphics.  You can get most
of the social benefit of the Internet with low technology that works
entirely with text, without foreclosing the possibility of upgrading
the technology later on.  Electronic mail does require literacy, but
the benefits of electronic correspondence also provide a powerful
motivation to acquire literacy skills.

6. Conduct extensive, structured analysis of the technical and
cultural environment.  Include the people whose work will actually
be affected.  A shared analytical process will help envision how
the technology will fit into the whole way of life around it, and
the technology will have a greater chance of actually being used.

7. Identify existing practices for sharing information and building
social networks and experiment using the Internet and allied
technologies to amplify them.

8. Don't distribute the technology randomly.  Electronic mail is
useless unless the people you want to communicate with are also
online, and people will not read their e-mail unless they want to.
Therefore, you should focus your effort on particular communities,
starting with the communities that have a strong sense of identity,
a good record of sharing information, and a collective motivation
to get online.

9. For children, practical experience in organizing complicated
social events, for example theater productions, is more important than
computer skills.  The Internet can be a powerful tool for education
if it is integrated with curriculum innovations that integrate the
technology into a coherent pedagogy.  But someone who has experience
with the social skills of organizing will immediately comprehend the
purpose of the Internet, and will readily acquire the technical skills
when the time comes.

10. Machinery does not reform society, repair institutions, build
social networks, or produce a democratic culture.  People must do
those things, and the Internet is simply one tool among many.  Find
talented people and give them the tools they need.  When they do great
things, contribute to your society's Internet culture by publicizing
their ideas.

Wanda J. Orlikowski, Learning from Notes: Organizational issues in
groupware implementation, The Information Society 9(3), 1993, pages

Julian E. Orr, Talking About Machines: An Ethnography of a Modern Job,
Ithaca: ILR Press, 1996.

Phil Agre is an associate professor of communication at the University
of California, San Diego.  He is the author of "Computation and Human
Experience" (Cambridge University Press, 1997) and the coeditor of
"Technology and Privacy: The New Landscape" (with Marc Rotenberg,
MIT Press, 1997) and "Reinventing Technology, Rediscovering Community:
Critical Studies in Computing as a Social Practice" (with Douglas
Schuler, Ablex, 1997).  Home page: http://communication.ucsd.edu/pagre/

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