Friday, September 24, 2004

On culture and technology

BBC News reports that, despite a lack of promised support from industrialised nations, a global fund designed to shrink the technology gap between rich and poor nations is to be launched in November.

Picking up on similar threads, Mike Masnick in The Feature reports that "some African leaders have decided that they can lift nations out of poverty if they just had more mobile phones" - but that they "might be better served trying to solve more fundamental issues first."

I certainly don't believe that technology will "save" people. And I firmly believe that the historical problem of "third-world" poverty will not be easily overcome - especially as long as we still assume that overcoming the "digital divide" is our best option.

But I cannot abide by the primitivist racism of this article. Masnick refers to Melanesian cargo cults as the actions and beliefs of people who were "a bit confused" and who "never understood what was really happening." Say what?! When searching the wikipedia, did he miss the entry for ethnocentrism?!

But maybe I shouldn't be pissed off at Masnick. Reading the wikipedia entry for cargo cults that he linked in his article, I learned that physicist Richard Feynman was the one responsible for coining the phrase cargo cult science (see also cargo cult programming) and teaching whole generations of technologists that it's okay to ridicule or dismiss cross-cultural practices you think are stupid (or at least less well-informed than your own). Sigh.

On a related note, in Race, Sex and Nerds: from Black Geeks to Asian-American Hipsters (via), Ron Eglash takes a look at the primitivist and orientalist racism (as well as sexism) that continue to block access to science and technology.

The article also brings up Sharon Traweek's excellent ethnographies of scientific culture and practice, and cited her observation "that the ability to 'ignore the social' (and thus express one's dedication to the asocial, universal realm of physics) is considered to be a sign of a good physicist." Hmm. Perhaps this explains Feynman's ignorance towards other cultural practices and values?!

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For those unfamilar with Traweek's research, and anyone interested in better understanding how culture has come to be absent from so much discourse on science and technology, I highly recommend her book Beamtimes and Lifetimes: The World of High Energy Physicists, and her article Unity, Dyads, Triads, Quads, and Complexity: Cultural Choreographies of Science (pdf), which begins:

"Many would argue that Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, published over thirty years ago in 1962, launched the new empirical researches into the practices of scientists. Nonetheless, Kuhn's work did not, in fact, disrupt the familiar litanies about science. Until the late seventies most historical, sociological, and philosophical investigations about science, technology, and medicine continued to assume and celebrate, but did not investigate the notion that scientists had invented a perfect way of knowing, quite free of all human constraints..."

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