According to Ramesh Srinivasan in his new book Whose global village?, “Inequality is a major part of the story of today’s Internet”, and museums and other cultural heritage organisations need to develop a more nuanced understanding of (digital) technology to make sure their stories reflect the communities they represent. I feel the book and its message are well-timed, as it gives fresh perspectives on questions that I increasingly hear being asked by museum and heritage professionals: how to make sure a diversity of voices is heard, and how can we use technology to be more inclusive and welcoming to people?
Ramesh Srinivasan is Director of the Digital Cultures Lab and Associate Professor of Information Studies and Design and Media at UCLA, and he has an exceptionally balanced outlook on the impact of technology on society, and vice versa. His research includes the use of technology in the Arab Spring, the development of technologies that represented the specific community needs of native American tribes, and many other topics. I met Ramesh twice at a museum conference, and have been following his work since.
Underlying his new book is Heidegger’s idea that a technology reveals underlying ontological beliefs for how the world should be ordered. Artefacts such as the Atari 2600 or the BASIC programming language are not neutral, but represent a social and cultural view of the world. A database reflects social and cultural practice. The ontologies and networks that shape digital communication, force everyone to speak the same language. If you look at histories of digital technology, you know its frame is predominantly AngloSaxon, male, white, etc.
In the real world, every community articulates their experiences differently. The digital world does not allow for such diversity, but can and should do so in the future.
“On the whole,” Ramesh writes, “globalization has reinforced inequality through the way new technologies have been deployed.” New technologies increasingly shape our world, but are rarely designed to reflect the perspectives of people at the fringes of the digital world. As a consequence, when we evangelize language such as “cloud”, “open”, or “Internet freedom”, we propagate one worldview at the expense of another. Ramesh: “The belief systems, values, and perspectives of source communities are threatened in the digital world, where terms such as openness or participation are evangelised without scrutiny.”
These insights influence the way museums and other cultural heritage organisations operate. “‘Educational’ projects that make cultural objects widely available to the public, as positive as they may seem from one perspective, may work to silence, devalue, and disrespect indigenous or community-specific approaches that seek to guard and protect information.” (p.117)
Fortunately, Ramesh offers alternatives from his own practice, which include a project similar to the inspirational Video Volunteers about which I have written elsewhere, and a carefully designed online storytelling and knowledge sharing platform for the Zuni. I recommend you read his books or watch his online videos to learn more about these cases. In summary, they are based on close collaboration with the recipient communities of a technology, in which the community takes the lead in many of the important decisions.
My own training and background in the role of technology on human development (which did not focus on ICTs, but on such things as improved stoves and electricity), similarly highlighted that the only way to make technology benefit communities, is to involve the recipients in its development all the way through. This requires a careful and inclusive design process, which to a large extent is owned and led by community members. This practice is slowly becoming commonplace in museums in other areas (such as exhibition development and education), and the lessons learned there can and should equally be applied to digital cultural heritage projects.
Most organisations I know of or work with are working hard to relate to the challenges of the digital age. Whose global village? offers some invaluable recommendations to them, and poses equally challenging questions. It will take a while to answer these questions, but asking them (as also happens explicitly at conferences such as Sharing is Caring this year) is a great step ahead, especially as “[T]he unchecked diffusion of technologies tends to reify rather than diminish inequality.” (p.53)
Whose global village? stimulated my thinking, and has reinforced my belief that the three seemingly disparate topics I keep returning to in my life – social and cultural innovation, new technologies and community-driven design – are in fact closely related, and should be so to make sure the digital era benefits all people equally.
Header image by Video Volunteers, available under a CC By SA license.