Thursday, September 9, 2004

The risk of techno-orientalism

Props to Katherine Moriwaki for coining reviving the phrase techno-orientalism, which she used to describe a tendency for mobile-tech researchers, when seeking "non-Western" cultural examples, to repeatedly call on Asia.

Actually, Katherine and I were recently at a conference where the phrase "Asian culture" was used so much that we had to ask which Asian cultures were being discussed - and Sha Xin Wei very politely stepped up to remind the room that Orientalism comes with a lot of baggage.

The history of American anthropology is closely tied to the study of culture areas: "contiguous geographic areas comprising a number of societies that possess the same or similar traits or that share a dominant cultural orientation." Originally proposed at the turn of the last century by Otis T. Mason, the Smithsonian's first full-time curator of Ethnology, the tradition of culture-area studies continues to this day -- for example, my MA culture-area specialisation was the Andes -- and this practice has played a pivotal role in the construction of anthropological knowledge (or what we mean by "culture") along with what is known as the anthropological "other."

This exotic "other," most often living in equally exotic far-away lands to which the anthropologist adventures, is also the subject of Edward W. Said's Orientalism. Although his work has been critiqued on the basis of its oversimplification of the colonial experience, and denial of what can be described as Eastern orientalism, it was seminal in drawing attention to Western political power, scholarly authority and intellectual discourses of "otherness." As he wrote on Orientalism 25 Years Later:

'There is a difference between knowledge of other peoples and other times that is the result of understanding, compassion, careful study and analysis for their own sakes, and on the other hand knowledge that is part of an overall campaign of self-affirmation. There is, after all, a profound difference between the will to understand for purposes of co-existence and enlargement of horizons, and the will to dominate for the purposes of control.'

These days Said's archetypal Oriental tends to be called Asian, but too often still represents or stands in for all Asian peoples - as if there were no differences between India and Laos and Sumatra, for example. With Asia leading as the largest market for mobile devices, and a common model for ubiquitous urban computing, Asian people are increasingly of interest to Western technology business and design cultures.

Anthropologists and other social scientists like Mimi Ito (University of Southern California), Genevieve Bell (Intel Research) and Shin Dong Kim (Hallym University), have focussed research on Asian techno-cultures without falling prey to techno-orientalism, but an interest in Asians-as-market risks slipping into a new version of Orientalism: that of Asian-as-consumer. And while that interest may not be for what Said called "purposes of control," it can certainly be argued that it is for purposes of profit, which are hardly politically neutral.

And as Katherine points out, even the best intentions to increase our scope to include perspectives beyond European and American contexts can result in singling out Asia as "other" - which is not really much better, even when it seems positively super cool. (For current examples of Japanophilia one need only pick up a copy of Wired magazine, and not just for the regular Japanese Schoolgirl Watch column. Or for those who love Asian pop-culture in general, or don't know that K is for Kogal, there's always Giant Robot. And on the darker side, don't even get me started on Asians-as-model-immigrants or unspoiled brides!)

So what's my point? Simple: as we look to Asia for example and inspiration for the brave new wireless world, we need to be careful to avoid sweeping generalisations and techno-orientalism. Asia is home to a wide range of cultures and peoples with distinct histories and current practices that reach far beyond (mobile) technologies - all of which deserve our equal attention and respect.

After recently having the pleasure of meeting Shin Dong Kim, Director of the Institute for Communication Arts & Technologies at Hallym University and Chair of the upcoming International Conference on Mobile Communication in Seoul, Korea, I am even more convinced that greater cross-cultural awareness and cooperation between scholars, designers, technologists, business-people and the public will be crucial if we are to build a truly inter-connected and humane world.

(And incidentally, with an equally long history of dismissing Africa as the Dark Continent and it now emerging as the fastest growing region for mobile communications we also risk doing the same with its richness and diversity of cultures - and that wouldn't be good either.)

[UPDATE: I thought I might mention that my friends laugh their asses off and refer to posts like this as "verbal diarrhoea". Just so you know you're not the only one.]

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