This paper investigates cultural issues concerning Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) and Indigenous Australians. Firstly, it examines whether the low adoption of ICTs by Indigenous Australians derives from a rejection of Western values embodied in the technology. A review of the existing literature shows no evidence for this. Instead, there appears to be an overwhelmingly enthusiastic response, limited only by a difficulty in accessing the technology due to cost, isolation, poor telecommunications infrastructure and low computer skills. Secondly, the paper looks at how ICTs can be implemented to reflect particular Indigenous Australian cultural concerns. Contrary to the view of the technological pessimists, who see computers as a vehicle for marginalizing non-Western cultures, ICTs are shown to be adaptable to other cultures, especially once people from that culture have input into ICT design and management. A number of examples of how this is being done in practice are given.
There have been many concerns expressed by computer ethicists about the non-neutrality of Information and Communication Technology (ICT). These worries centre around the idea that ICTs, like all technologies, come embedded with the values of the society which produced them. Associated with this view are reservations about the extent to which ICTs can move away from the dominant culture for which they were designed and be adapted to reflect other cultural values and interests.
According to this view, ICTs might have a serious impact on Indigenous communities as they adopt the new technologies, loading unwanted Western values onto them in a modern form of cultural imperialism. How are Indigenous peoples to deal with these new technologies? Will they be able to access their many advantages while retaining their own cultures intact? Importantly, do they view them as a new medium of colonization, antithetical to their traditional values and world view? Or are the concerns of the technological pessimists merely an excuse to exclude already economically disadvantaged groups from the power and benefits of ICTs?
The objective of this paper is to attempt to answer some of these important questions by investigating the issue of technology and culture with specific reference to Indigenous Australians. This is of particular interest to the Faculty of Information Technology at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS), who in 2002 embarked on a new, ambitious scheme, the Indigenous Participation in Information Technology Project, to attract Indigenous Australians into Information Technology (IT) courses and hence into the ICT industry. In this paper, evidence from the literature on the adoption of ICTs by Indigenous Australians will be supported by insights from the work that has been done on this project.
The first part of this paper briefly examines the issue of computer technology and culture in the light of the literature in this field. Evidence will then be presented regarding whether Indigenous Australians are rejecting ICTs and, most importantly, whether this is because of Western values embedded in their design. The evidence available consists mainly of facts concerning rates of ICT adoption by Indigenous Australians and studies of attitudes of Indigenous computer users, particularly students. The situation is complex, with on the one hand low adoption rates, but on the other hand a generally positive response to the technology recorded amongst the users.
The second part of the paper demonstrates how ICTs can be adapted to reflect Indigenous Australian cultural concerns through particular examples of how this is being done now in Australia. This provides further evidence of how Indigenous Australians are dealing with the technology and using it to achieve their own goals.
2. ICTs: The New Medium of Colonization?
ICTs can be viewed in various ways. Most simply, they are tools fulfilling the functions for which they were designed. This is what Chandler (1996) calls a ‘voluntarist’ approach: the individual chooses a tool and controls its use. The technology is pure object: an assembly of interacting computer parts, data processing and storage functions, a string of electrical signals representing bits. It is neutral, content free, devoid of meaning beyond its function.
A more complex way of looking at computer technology is from a socio-political perspective. According to this view, technology is inseparable from the social, cultural, historical and political context which produced it. It is ‘part of a social environment, an agent of social change, the physical medium through which symbolic values are expressed, the trace of a civilization’ (Martinand 1995, p.52).
This approach questions the neutrality of ICTs. Essentially it encompasses two main ideas:
- ICTs are the products of a culture and hence embody the ideologies of that culture
- ICTs, because of the values and ideologies they embody, in turn have the ability to influence and effect change in society which produced them, the world and the user.
This second idea embraces technological determinism, which in its most extreme form sees technology as reconstructing the whole of society:
New technologies alter the structure of our interests: the things we think about. They alter the character of our symbols: the things we think with. And they alter the nature of community: the arena in which thoughts develop (Postman 1992, p. 20).
Postman, one of the main protagonists of technological determinism, takes a very pessimistic view. He interprets computer technology as undermining confidence in human judgement in favour of calculation, as emphasizing the communication process at the expense of the substance of the communicated idea, as leading to the acceptance of a dangerous metaphor: humans as machines; computers capable of human thinking and decision making. Most important for Postman is the loss of the ‘psychic, emotional and moral dimensions’ of human thought, the loss of subjectivity and traditional values (Postman 1992, pp. 118).
If, as the technological determinists say, ICTs have the power to change our culture and transform us and the way we think, then this has serious implications for the adoption of the technology by Indigenous peoples, struggling to maintain the integrity of their culture in a world dominated by Western ideologies and lifestyles. Even if we take a less extreme view than Postman, the potential transference of some Western values onto Indigenous users should be of concern.
3. Adoption Rates of ICTs by Indigenous Australians
The best evidence to support the view of the technological determinists is the low rate of adoption of ICTs by Indigenous Australians. On the surface this suggests a possible rejection of the technology and the values that accompany it. Examples of this low involvement with ICTs include:
3.1. LOW RATES OF COMPUTER OWNERSHIP
Robertson, Dyson, Norman and Buckley (2002) found that few Indigenous school students own a computer. Low computer ownership persists into tertiary education: a case study into students at UTS showed that Indigenous students had less access to computers at home than a control group (Barraket, Payne, Scott & Cameron 2000).
3.2. POOR COMPUTER LITERACY LEVELS
The study by Barraket et al. (2000) showed that Indigenous university students had poor levels of computer literacy, which related to low computer use. Barlow and de Lacey (1998) also noted low rates of computer skills generally in Indigenous communities.
3.3. LOW ENROLLMENTS IN UNIVERSITY IT COURSES
Few Indigenous students undertake studies in IT at the tertiary level. Of the 8,000 Indigenous students enrolled in university and Technical and Further Education (TAFE) courses across Australia during 2000 only 107 were enrolled in IT programs (Ruddock 2001). Most of these students are studying in TAFE institutes, with very low enrolments at university level. Cameron, Edwards, Grant and Kearns (1999) found that Indigenous university participation in IT degree courses as well as IT subjects in non-IT degrees was close to 0% of total enrolments. For example, Indigenous completions in IT courses at UTS probably total 2 to date, with many universities offering IT or computer science courses failing to ever enrol or graduate a single IT student (figures supplied by the Indigenous Participation in IT Project, UTS, and DEST (2002)).
An important factor in discouraging entry into tertiary studies identified by Robertson et al. (2002) was lack of awareness of IT as a possible study and career option. School career counsellors had little understanding of the kinds of work available in the field, and the lack of Indigenous role models in this area was a problem.
These authors also proposed that the success of Indigenous people in more accepted disciplines, such as education, law and nursing, ‘might be filtering Indigenous students directly into those areas so strongly that other options were not being considered’ (Robertson et al. 2002, p. 291).
3.4. FEW INDIGENOUS ICT PROFESSIONALS
Robertson et al. (2002, p. 290-1) found that ICT professionals were ‘very few in number’ and that their participation rate was ‘so low that it has not been measured.’ This is obviously a direct result of the low participation in tertiary courses. The few Indigenous people working in the field were mostly self-trained, moving into web design from backgrounds in art, or acquiring computer skills as part of existing jobs in Indigenous and community organizations.
4. Indigenous Australian Access to ICTs
The low adoption of ICTs would seem to support the assumption that Indigenous Australians are rejecting Western values embedded in the technology. However, closely related to the issue of Indigenous adoption of computer technology is the ability of Indigenous Australians to access ICTs. Lack of equity of access is probably sufficient to explain the low adoption rates, without resorting to cultural arguments. Robertson et al. (2002, p. 291) ‘found no evidence that Indigenous people had any specific problems with learning and using technology, but there are major problems of access and awareness.’ Access factors include:
The most important factor in stopping Indigenous Australians from using computers is probably the cost of the technology, both the cost of buying computers as well as the ensuing cost of usage, maintenance and repair (Barlow and de Lacey 1998). Barraket et al. (2000) identified the costs of hardware, software, the cost of remote access connections and Internet Service Provider fees as significant barriers. As one student in their study stated, ‘The use of technology such as computers, fax’s, and phones are extremely relevant to me, or would be if I could afford the costs associated’ (Barraket et al. 2000, p. 80).
4.2. ENVIRONMENTAL CONSTRAINTS
Another significant factor is the geographic isolation of many Indigenous communities and the poor telecommunications infrastructure in much of rural and remote Australia. Most information regarding telecommunications in outback Australia is dated and limited, yet there is enough anecdotal evidence to show that both basic telephone connections and Internet services are totally inadequate (DCITA). The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, in giving evidence to the Telecommunications Services Inquiry in 2000 (DCITA), raised concerns about:
- Low levels of provision of the standard telephone service
- Poor, unreliable and non-existent infrastructure
- Long delays in installing new connections and making repairs
- The high costs of phone installations and repairs as well as costs of wireless and
Furthermore, the remoteness of many communities creates difficulties in buying software and hardware and in accessing computer support personnel (Fleer 1989).
4.3. DIFFICULTY IN ACQUIRING BETTER COMPUTER SKILLS
Barraket et al. (2000) reported that university students were caught in a vicious cycle, whereby their poor skills made them less confident in accessing computing resources which would have in turn assisted in improving their computer literacy. Barlow and de Lacey (1998, p.11) found that for Indigenous students ‘access to and competence in technologies often appear outside of their schooling and social environment and this creates a barrier’. Indigenous Australians lack networks of friends and relatives who themselves are sufficiently technologically competent to provide help in acquiring the necessary skills to operate computer equipment.