cultural imperialism & social media
Social media channels – like global media generally – have a tendency to be dominated by the US – due almost exclusively to their sheer volume of users. In the world of social and environmental enterprise – where global participants are located in some of the world’s poorest countries – i suspect the disparity is even more obvious.
It’s not that they are necessarily smarter (although some of the smartest people I’ve ever met are US citizens), nor is it that they’re more innovative, effective or impactful (although many of the most in all three also live stateside). It’s simply that there are more of them, and they’re all hyper-connected.
It’s a testament to the benefits of highly dispersed, reasonably open communications infrastructure binding together a relatively well-educated, media-savvy and wealthy community.
A challenge inherent in this phenomena, however, appears to be a form of unintentional cultural imperialism; when the dominant memes in changemaking are being propagated by the offspring of the disastrous marriage of free market capitalism and global political / military dominance, we have a great deal to be cautious about.
If we can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them (as we’re all so fond of reminding each other) shouldn’t we concerned about free-market solutions to (so many of) the problems the free-market created?
Take the simple idea of Social Enterprise – an idea that has vastly different applications due to a combination of complex social, economic and political structures, coupled with simple bias toward approaching changemaking within a particular type of organisational framework. The most pertinent example can be seen in the almost diametrically opposed ideas of social enterprise in place in the US and the UK. US-based social entrepreneurs I’ve spoken with are either ignorant at best and disparaging at worst of the kinds of public/private partnerships social enterprise is taken to mean elsewhere (and clearly, the converse is also true – the Brits are just as suspicious of for-profit resolution to social and environmental issues … at least without active involvement from the government). It’s understandable (to a degree) given the USA’s cultural distrust of centralised government coupled with a naive and universally unsound belief in the power of the market over the power of governance (although #occupy seems to be heralding a change in this regard … we’ll see …). The problem, however, is that …
when you search for #socent (for example) you will invariably find that the twitter stream is dominated by US voices – of varying quality and credibility, no doubt, but US nonetheless.
(Perhaps by now you’re wondering why i never say ‘American’ – well, you can thank one of my Canadian friends who said ‘if you live in North or South America, well, you’re American; how do you think they’d feel if we insisted that they call themselves Canadian?’)
The same goes for any of the other tags you might find yourself using on a regular basis; #impinv, #consciouscapitalism, #sustainability, #nonprofit, #socinn, #collcons etc … these memes aren’t unique to the US, and the cultural understandings of them are diverse (I should note that while I have some issues with the US approach to social enterprise, there is much to commend it also). Unfortunately the social media we have become increasingly reliant upon for aggregating and disseminating information is flooded with US data, US users and US perspectives; further, the reach of one’s networks is not, whatever Klout would have you believe, evidence of the value of one’s information, opinion or capacity for critical thinking …. Ashton Kutcher and his (albeit retracted) twitter commentary on the Penn State coach scandal are a perfect case in point.
Naturally i understand that i can create geographic filters (presuming my ISP recognises my location – GIS is not a given in all parts of the world); I also appreciate that we can apply filters like #aus to our various social media postings if we want to ensure they are seen locally (losing four valuable spaces in a tweet along the way); country specific variations such as #socentau don’t work unless you only want people who are following that tag to see your content … so what do we do?
PROBLEM ONE – COST OF ACCESS
In Australia, like several other (let’s call them) tier 1.5 democracies, we are still struggling with a combination of constrained internet access, and unreasonably high comparative costs for hardware & software despite the relative strength of the Australian economy (thankfully we managed to defeat the monumentally stupid idea of mandatory internet filtering … but the fact that it even got broached as a Federal program says a great deal about our national approach to communications). To gain access to reliable, high-speed, unlimited data on a home or office connection you have to be prepared to deal with a sub-standard service. To achieve an acceptable level of reliability and speed you can pay up to $130 a month for a data-cap of about 500GB a month; if you go over your account quota you’re subject to one or a combination of reduced speeds and additional fees.
While it’s a fair argument that the average user doesn’t need 500GB a month (an assertion that i have frequently put to the test – not that I’m going to admit that I download terabytes of copyright protected material including documentaries because I’m interested in staying abreast of latest thinking and aren’t prepared to wait until they make their way to a video store nowhere near me), it’s not just the domestic accounts where we find our connectivity weakened.
Businesses are subject to the same data constraints, which means that if you need round the clock, reliable, distributed access, you can expect to pay for it.
Wireless Internet services in (semi) public places are virtually non-existent (yes, i know that I can put a sim-card into a GRS enabled device, but see the below on pricing and you’ll understand why I exclude this possibility) … want to go down to your local cafe, drink a coffee and hammer out a few emails? Good luck. Even just want to read the digital paper, tweet from a conference or conduct a live to air web-interview? Think again. Need to get online in your hotel room? Have your credit card handy … you can’t even generally bill the service to your room since it’s run by independent companies that are making out like bandits.
When it comes to mobile networks, there’s only one company – Telstra – that can provide truly national high-speed access, and even then, the quality-of-service when compared to the US is abysmal; to make matters worse, their customer service has been atrocious for decades; they’re the big Aussie brand we all love to hate. Not to mention that Telstra (nee Telecom) used to be a well-structured, operationally efficient state asset owned by all Australians that the Howard government sold off in a pique of economic rationalism between 1997 and 2006; and while competition is supposed to drive innovation, Telstra still has a stranglehold on our underlying communications infrastructure (it retains ownership of the fixed-line telephone network) that means that, try as you might to believe it was a good move, it’s just not a level playing field … what financial interest does this company have in providing uncapped data through the pipelines it leases to other telcos?
In short, if I want to stay connected, I need to be prepared to fork out for my own independent wireless device on a 24 month contract at $40 a month to gain access to the level of mobile data I require (or pay roughly the same for inclusive data on my cell phone, and get a much slower service); don’t get me started on the double dipping telecommunications companies engage in by not permitting us to share data between our cell phones and our laptops. Add to that the costs for unlimited mobile calls with between 2gb and 5gb of data – $130 a month – a domestic adsl service *and* a connection at the office and I could be looking at spending in excess of $300 a month on telephones and internet alone. Further, naked dsl is a relatively new concept here, and the reality of ‘bundled’ services is that if you want the higher data caps (usually twice the amount sans bundle), you need to connect a landline phone as well, that will set you back (at a minimum) an additional $30 a month per line (home and office).
$360 a month just so i can stay connected with my European, Asian and (continent-appropriate) American brothers and sisters …
Seriously? I lived in Boulder, Colorado for a year and paid roughly the same per month in rent and had access to virtually limitless data wherever I went; that on top of being within a few hours flying to New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Austin, Portland and other globally relevant hotbeds of social and environmental enterprise and the never-ending stream of events, (un)conferences and informal gatherings with folks shaping the global changemaking discourse make it a no-brainer.
As sexy and as switched on as Melbourne is (sorry Sydney, but you’ve got a lot to do to catch up … and I know that you know it), it just can’t compete; not yet anyway …
Costs for hardware are similarly inflated; a baseline comparison of the entry-level Macbook Air shows it to be 14% more expensive in Australia; the iPad 2 is 20% more. The pricing difference is so profound that one Australian politician has lambasted Apple and other technology firms including Microsoft, Lenovo and Adobe from Federal Parliament for pricing differences (and yes, i do understand that profit margins today are based upon wholesale pricing at time of purchase, but I’m confident the Aussie dollar has not gained 20% against the greenback in the past two years).
PROBLEM TWO – NATIONAL IDENTITY
There’s been a lot of commentary of late about the lack of innovation in Australia … to my compatriots who believe this to be true, get your heads out of the sand and take a look around because there’s a helluva lot going on. Yes, there are a lot of entrenched attitudes towards enterprise that aren’t helpful; sure we have federal governments that swing between giving all power to the people and all power to the corporates (sound like any other countries we know?); granted we have a tendency to be, perhaps, a little too laid back … it’s a pretty easy country to be in compared to many (despite the presence of so many creatures that are all too happy to kill you)
If, however, we don’t want to keep losing our best and brightest overseas perhaps it’s time we as a nation recognised that, despite the seeming political, geographic and cultural divides, we’re living in a global community … in order for all members of the community to play an active role in supporting the change we so urgently need, we need to level the playing field somewhat … and in the fields of social and environmental enterprise, while there may well be strong elements of competition at play (something I urgently feel the need to riff on) …
collaboration is the only possible pathway forward if we’re going to shift the needle once and for all … for all of us!
THE SOLUTION – RE-ESTABLISH OUR NATIONAL IDENTITY (?)
Australia has an important part to play in the global changemaking arena; our people are passionate, intelligent and pragmatic; our political and economic models fall somewhere between those of our two strongest allies; we’re globally aware and, according to several reports, travel more extensively than any of the other western nations; we have strong welfare, healthcare and education systems (they can always be improved of course), and we are naturally suspicious of all forms of elitism.
While we may not have access to an ‘ivy league’ education, let’s not forget that, while so many ivy leaguers are now actively engaged with changemaking, it’s their forbears that drove not only the US but so many of the countries it interfered with into the ground.
Just because people are intelligent and powerful doesn’t necessarily make it useful to have them in charge …
Getup! – an organisation that many around the world are aware of – has more members than any political party in Australia. In fact, on the numbers, it’s possibly the strongest bi-partisan, apolitical national advocacy body in the world. What most people don’t know, is that Avaaz was also co-founded by Australians. Don’t believe me? Check out purpose – founded by a bunch of Aussies in New York who are responsible for building the movements of Getup! Avaaz!, Global Zero and others.
Frankly, I’m not entirely certain of the solution, but I’m sure as hell interested in talking about it. Australian’s used to ape the Brits, and for too long now we’ve been aping the US.
My disillusionment with the Australian #occupy movement is that it’s taken up ideas that are completely legitimate in the original context of #OccupyWallStreet and co-opted them for our own purposes
(we don’t have corporate personhood enshrined in law, we haven’t outsourced all of our healthcare, we do have strong measures in place to prevent corporate interference with political process, we do have effective democratic safeguards to permit the removal of politicians from office and the sacking of prime ministers)
For starters, we need to stop imitating and start innovating … it’s the most important step we can take.
Not on an individual basis (as mentioned previously) but on a national basis. This is a unique country. Melbourne (where I am at the moment) is the wealthiest and most livable city in the world. Perth (where I’ve just come from) has the largest inner-city parkland in the world. Australia has 23% of the world’s uranium resources (still argued, by some, to be a necessary point of exploration for energy generation). We have 97% of the land-mass of the US and 7% of their population and have enormous capacity to expand. Our coastline lends itself to vast wind and wave energy generation; our interior similarly lends itself to an incomprehensible level of solar power generation.
In terms of ensuring our voice is heard – not just globally but, more importantly domestically, perhaps we should just co-opt the #au tag and just start tweeting the hell out of everything that’s going on here. For more substantive dialog, I suspect we need to give more attention and value to independent media and focus on propagating our own individual posts (such as these) throughout it, while also investigating more formal, and collective (re)distribution agreements with the larger and more focused global media organisations such as Yes!, Orion, Mother Jones, The Huffington Post (although their content seems to become more spurious by the day … how Kim Kardashian shows up in their ‘green’ section is completely beyond me).
We have no issue importing British and American content … perhaps it’s time we started exporting a little more of our constantly expanding intelligence instead of giving all our attention to what we can suck, dig and blast out of the ground.
I’ve given a lot of focus to what’s (not) happening in Australia with this post … and if you’ve stuck with me this long you’d probably survive the transatlantic flight to get you here. But the issue of unintended cultural imperialism and the need to maintain one’s own national identity and develop solutions that are contextually relevant remains true for all peoples, for all nations.
We need to find ways to maintain and celebrate our sovereignty while simultaneously recognising that it’s in all of our interests to learn equally from each other. Monocultures are, after all, patently unsustainable.