In her book titled When Old Technologies Were New (1988), Carolyn Marvin mentioned that “new technologies will bring every individual… into immediate and effortless communication with every other, practically obliterate political geography, and make free trade universal.” A seemingly prophetic line, indeed. People around the world are now closer than ever. What made this transformation possible? And what are the cultural implications of a more connected global landscape?
Technological achievements when it comes to transportation, though very significant, is just but a speck of this radical social transformation. During the last five decades, the advancement that truly shaped the image of our global landscape is our communication system – the Internet, to be more precise. As of the moment, almost all of us have an available access to telecommunication devices for fast and reliable connection. In numbers, China is currently leading the chart on world’s highest Internet users with 721,434,547 active users as of June 2016. This is followed by India (with 462,124,989 users) and United States (with 286,942,362 users). We are living in a world wherein human populations are greatly enmeshed. This connection grows staggeringly fast each day. With this context, I think it is apt to state that the Internet is currently shaping a new type of acculturation where personal culture contact is absent but transfer and exchange of cultural traits still happen. Anthropologist Conrad Kottak defines acculturation as “the exchange of cultural features that results when groups have continuous firsthand contact. With acculturation, parts of the culture change, but each group remains distinct.”
Whether acculturation is facilitated by coercion and force is still contested. Acculturation is, most of the time, between dominant and submissive culture. It actually entails a two-way process of change though many researches focus on the adjustments and adaptations by minority groups to dominant mainstream groups. Interestingly, the dawn of digital age is starting to transcend the textbook definition of acculturation. Traditionally, continuous firsthand culture contact is a prerequisite for acculturation to take place. Digital realm, however, enables people to connect and continuously contact other people (firsthand) even though they are physically distant. This is when the cyberspace comes in. Basically, Internet is a dynamic and evolving system of global network that connects millions of computers through the use of standard Internet protocol suite. An article written by Jonathan Strickland (Who Owns the Internet?) contains a very unorthodox presentation on how Internet protocol works:
“Imagine you’re in a room full of people from different countries, and everyone only speaks his or her native language. In order to communicate, you’d have to come up with a standard set of rules and vocabulary. That’s what makes the Internet so remarkable: It’s a system that lets different computer networks communicate with each other using a standardized set of rules. Without rules, these computer networks wouldn’t be able to communicate with each other.”
Internet protocol suite, the standardized set of rules, enables computer of different “Internet Protocol” IP addresses (the identity and location of your computer) to communicate across networks. We can create a network through a router – a hardware that connects one computer to another. The router, then, fires transmission signals to satellites that will then distribute the message and the connection to other existing networks around the world. We have now a global system of network. And the connection is growing ridiculously fast!
Live video calling between individual is already possible. Discussions at chat rooms and forum websites do exist. It is as if Internet has the ability to devoid the geographical boundaries of different people and let them have personal contact in just few mouse clicks. The phenomenon is fascinating because firsthand contacts between different cultures are actually happening without one physically meeting the other. For example, a Korean national that uses the Internet can easily converse and discuss with a German national even though they are thousands of miles apart. They can share their ideas, experiences, and even culture as they immerse in this virtual society. It is apparent that the physical contact is absent in this kind of transaction but the idea of passing cultural knowledge and traits to other individuals or groups (especially those who are not members of one’s society) thrive and continually occur. The firsthand contact of different people through the Internet, in a way, has bypassed the platform of physical space.
In addition, circulation of digital media suddenly became active because of the Internet. People can watch, share and download films, songs, pictures, and books. Mass-production of digital information is right before our eyes. These are material cultures that carry cultural traits from the society where it has originated.
We should also be aware that Internet is not a homogeneous entity. Inside this cyberspace, are thousands of social clusters with varied interests and goals. This is important because different sections of the Internet also contain different cultural dynamics and rites of passage. Some websites accommodate people who are interested in news, while other are created to facilitate easier philosophical or scientific discussions. Some are developed to archive tons of information (like Wikipedia) while there are also websites that serve as carnal haven for those who consume pornographic video. Websites vary when it comes to cultural structure and their members vary from wide-ranging demography to focused target population. In a way, Internet is composed of virtual social organizations that we can call electronic tribes. Here, people continually reproduce electronic culture, and also inevitably incorporate it in their personal lives.
Internet is making a mark in the human history. Still, I cannot deny the obvious limits of Internet. Behind the mists and magic of the Internet lies an older and stronger order whose relevance remains inescapable. Groups that do not have access to Internet are less affected by what I am calling “digital acculturation”. Sixty-five percent (65%) of the world population still do not have access to Internet. Virtual scoiety, though promises freedom within cyberspace, ironically generates social stratification. However, this does not mean that we should stop using the Internet. On the contrary, I think we are placed in the right position to explore the limitations of this technology. And we are still starting.
Long live the Internet!