As late as 1998, U.S. citizens constituted the significant majority of Internet users (84%: GVU 1998). Given this demographic dominance, it is not surprising that U.S.-specific visions also dominated both popular discourse and English-language scholarship regarding computer-mediated communication (CMC). Such dominance, of course, goes hand-in-hand with ethnocentrism – and so it is perhaps not surprising that the rapid diffusion of CMC technologies among diverse cultures and settings issued in a range of conflicts, from the minor to the catastrophic, that collectively began to demonstrate two central points.
One, far from serving as value-free or morally-neutral tools, CMC technologies themselves appear to embed and foster the cultural values and communicative preferences of their Western designers. As a first example: South Africa has attempted to establish Learning Centres intended to empower indigenous peoples by helping them take advantage of the multiple potentials and capacities of ICTs. A series of observers have noted, however, that these Centres repeatedly fail – in part, because of basic cultural conflicts. Briefly, the Centres reflect their designer’s Western emphasis on individual and silent learning – in contrast with indigenous preferences for learning in collaborative and often noisy, performative ways (Postma 2001). This conflict is also captured in Edward T. Hall’s distinction between high and low context cultures (1976). In this schema, contemporary societies such as the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Germanic countries show a preference for literate (i.e., textual), high content (but low context) information transfer – while societies such as Arabic cultures, indigenous peoples, and many Asian cultures prefer instead more oral, low content (but high context) modes of communication. As the CMC technologies and social context of the Learning Centres favors the cultural values and communicative preferences of their Western designers – these values and preferences clash with those of the indigenous peoples the Centres are intended to serve, with almost total failure as a result (see Snyman and Hulbert 2004; cf. Duncker 2002).
Similarly, Western Group Support Systems (GSS) that favor anonymity as a feature intended to encourage open and direct communication proved disastrous in the Confucian cultures of South Asia, as this indeed succeeded in encouraging subordinates to make comments that were culturally interpreted – and condemned – as attacks on one’s “face” (Abdat and Pervan 2000). These and multiple other examples make clear that CMC technologies carry and further a specific set of cultural values and communicative preferences – ones that, far from being universally shared, are indeed limited to specific cultural domains.