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Cultural Influences in Computing Technologies? 43

Jose Rojas asks: "I'd like to request the help of the international Slashdot community to help me address the following issues. I'm starting my PhD in computing science and I'm interested in understanding how computing technologies are shaped by the cultural environment where they are originally created. It is my hypothesis that computing technologies we use today are the result of an initial idea that essentially defines how a technology (i.e., a software application) will be used afterwards. Being the product of an initial idea, this technology is the tangible outcome of the mind of its creator. While I recognize that a prototype is subsequently shaped by social, commercial, cultural, and other various forces that popularize it, my position is that the computing technologies we use today are, essentially, the embodiment of the particular idiosyncrasies (beliefs, ideals, goals, or aims) of their original creators. Furthermore, since the personal computer and other computing technologies are said to be the product of the Western world, it is quite reasonable to suppose that computing technologies embody a Western view of the world, that is, Western ideals as to why they exist, what are their purposes, and what problems (if any) are they supposed to solve, but what are those philosophies, ideals, and purposes of computing technologies embodied in Western-produced computing technology?"
"As computing technologies continue penetrating all over the world, and as other countries are empowered to develop native computing technologies, do computing technologies developed in non-Western countries originate from and embody essentially different philosophies, ideals, and overall purposes of technology? Do they address different needs? What are some examples of these computing technologies that originate from different needs, ideals, philosophies, and/or cultural environments? Are the characteristics of non-Western computing technologies transferable, or are they intrinsically bounded to the originating culture? Are there any lessons to learn from non-Western views of technology? And finally, are computing technologies developed in non-Western countries limited by the "Western" nature of the computer?

I will welcome any opinion, suggestion, advice, link, and any other resource the Slashdot community can point me to. Please, feel free to contribute and engage in this discussion."
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Cultural Influences in Computing Technologies?

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  • Genes (Score:2, Insightful)

    From TFS:

    While I recognize that a prototype is subsequently shaped by social, commercial, cultural, and other various forces that popularize it [...].

    You failed to mention the genetic component, which is the most determinant component: society, commerce and culture proceed therefrom; Bolsheviks be damned.

    As long as you remain distracted by the epiphenomenon of culture, you are one of the “thousand hacking at the branches of evil to [the] one who is striking at the root.*”

    * Thore

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by maxume ( 22995 )
      So what happens if Kurzweil is right and intelligent agents emerge(and dominate...) that are more beholden to their own ideas than they are to an accident of birth?

    • Three points:

      A) To the parent - expect to be modded down as "-1 Nazi" []. Get used to it - it comes with the territory.

      B) I think that the original poster's idea for a PhD thesis is utterly gay, but

      C) I've always thought that the Hindi [and others hailing from the Jewel in the Crown - I dunno, maybe Zoroastrians as well] have a tendency to engage in a fuzzier mode of thinking than do we in The West.

      Westerners, coming out of what you might call the Euclidean School, tend to start with a set of axioms,
    • Re:Genes (Score:5, Insightful)

      by morleron ( 574428 ) * < minus pi> on Saturday October 21, 2006 @10:27AM (#16528023) Journal
      An interesting observation. However, I think that an even stronger influence on the design, as opposed to use, of computers and other digital technologies is that of mathematics. After all, math is the driving force behind the design of the various digital beasties that now affect our lives. Thus, they all operate according to a well-understood set of logic and math rules. The actual packaging of the devices is driven by sales, marketing, and, to a degree, engineering considerations - which are the parts of the process that are affected by culture per se.

      How the device is actually used is driven by culture. I think that's one of the reasons that Americans, in general, are quick to pick up the latest in "easy to use" tech and that's one of the reasons for MS's dominance in the computer field. Bill Gates and company have sold their products as being "easy to use" and they have done a good job of making good on that claim - it's unfortunate that the underlying OS is such a piece of schlock, but that's another discussion. I'm not an MS fan, but the company has done more to popularize the use of computers for all sorts of tasks - to the point that it has an apparently unshakeable hold on the mind of the average computer user - than the rest of the industry did over the thirty or so years prior to the introduction of Windows 3. Most PC users at that time (and since) didn't have to deal with the underlying complexity of the technology as, since they were generally using the machines at work, they had geeks like us to set the things up and fix them when they went south. As time has gone on MS has made Windows easier to use at the expense of removing access to much of the underlying power of the machine - which is why so many of us here on /. despise them so.

      MS isn't the only company to sell their products based on the "easy to use" mantra. Other examples are provided by Apple - a one-button mouse must be easier to use than the multi-button devices from other companies; HP, their first touch-screen PCs were a marvel though the technology itself wasn't robust enough for use in business and/or shop-floor settings; and IBM - the original PC was, in spite of its many shortcomings, much easier to use than the mainframes the company made most of its money on. Camera phones provide another example, they're easier to use than their full-size digital camera cousins - just pull open the phone, point it at what you want the picture of, push a button to take the picture, push another button to send the picture to whomever you want - how mush simpler can it get?

      I could go on, but I think I've made my point. "Easy" is always quicker to sell than "hard and requires learning before you become proficient", at least here in America.

      Just my $.02,
  • by Myself ( 57572 ) on Saturday October 21, 2006 @06:12AM (#16526979) Journal
    I think the largest shift we've seen isn't cultural so much as commercial. When computers were a hobby in and of themselves, the user was given some credit: Manuals included schematics, and everything was meant to be programmed by the end user.

    As the computer has shifted to become another TV, users are turned back into viewers, and there's no incentive to make the innards accessible. It's only by history that we have the degree of control that we do!

    I wonder how a culture with no concept of "marketing" would use the tools we now have available to us.
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by maxume ( 22995 )
      no concept of "marketing"...

      Dude. Every culture where a young woman or young man stands up a little straighter(or whatever) when they see a young man or young woman they like has the concept of marketing. By my count, that's all of them.
  • western world (Score:3, Insightful)

    by SilentGhost ( 964190 ) on Saturday October 21, 2006 @06:20AM (#16527007) Journal
    It would be great if you could elaborate on your 'western world' notion? what does it mean? how do you define who does and who doesn't belong to western world? what is that? mcdonalds/coke/fast cars? are Amish [] people western?

    I think if you'd care do define terms you're using, it'd much easier to answer you question.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Denial93 ( 773403 )
      To define "Western ideals" will not suffice. You need to find ways to

      measure adherence vs. non-adherence to these ideals,
      make them (intersubjectively) verifiable,
      and somehow rationalize how you came up with your particular measures without designing them into giving you the results you want from the data you knew you were going to feed them.

      I'd say best of luck, but I'll rather say change your subject, fast. What you are attempting to do is social science and I'm afraid that as an IT guy, you have no idea
  • Culture? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Ajehals ( 947354 ) <> on Saturday October 21, 2006 @06:21AM (#16527015) Homepage Journal
    I assume that you are looking at this from a national / regional culture perspective, and that may be valid in some areas but I would assume the largest impact (well the largest 'cultural' impact at least) would not come from that area at all.

    I have over time worked with a few programmers from a diverse range of national cultures and I have found that the only cultural impact that is discernible is the corporate or technological culture. That is to say that project management and technical approaches (using the latest tech or sticking to established and stable tech etc..) had an impact, whilst the individual team members backgrounds had little effect.

    I think what you need to do is look at 3 - 5 applications that are not aimed at a corporate end user (to remove prevalent the corporate culture as an factor), and that have been written by different people / groups in different countries, and then try to identify where they came from. I am willing to bet that you will be unable to do so.

    I would go further and say that if you look at open source projects developed around the world that the methods used in developing the code would not be largely different. Open Source would provide hopefully give you more insight as you should have access to the code and also be able to see what processes are being followed to create and update that code, as well as having a good idea of what the aims of the projects are and also what the impetus behind its inception were. Although I am sure the project and management methodologies will have been different, I would suggest that they would not differ based on a national or regional culture.

    Technology is a global phenomenon, and the aims and objectives of corporations and even of individuals tend to be similar, moreover certain practices have been developed that just work, sure some were more prevalent in some societies in the past but now, as people have become more aware of what works, there has been a large amount of crossover, and the cultural element is largely gone.

    Of course if you compare Open Source and Closed Source projects you will see in many cases a major divergence in methodology, but that will be because of the cultures inherent in those communities. To look at culture and its impact on IT, I would suggest you need to rapidly redefine what you mean by culture.

    To put it bluntly, programming is not an art form, it is damn close at times, but it is not subject to as much interpritation as other areas. Whilst software is created with the aims of a creator in mind, and that creator will be in some ways influenced by his local culture when formulating his aims, I doubt that those aims would be unique, and If someone else from a different culture addressed the same aims I believe that the approach and end result would be very similar.

    Lastly I should add that whilst I have tried to address in broad terms some of what you mention, I believe that this whole area is secondary to so many other factors that it is almost a non existent element, But that is just my experience, and is likely not to be representative of the industry as a whole.
  • by MathFox ( 686808 ) on Saturday October 21, 2006 @06:24AM (#16527031)
    There are some interesting studies you could do. One thing you should realise is that while the USA has had the biggest influence on computing so far, there are significant contributions from Europe and Japan. Compare products from Japa, Europe and the USA.
    Another of my theories is that the shape of our computing today is not driven by the general culture, but by a specific subculture, the PHB's that decide on look and features. You could verify that theory by looking at differences between "shrinkwap", "tailormade" and Open Source software.

    I wouldn't be surprised if you found that a large part of the compromises we make in computing are caused by the limitations of our interface with computers. Mouse, keyboard and monitor are a far cry from digital brain to computer links.

  • Everything (Score:5, Insightful)

    by OeLeWaPpErKe ( 412765 ) on Saturday October 21, 2006 @06:47AM (#16527119) Homepage
    Computers are filled with nothing less than cultural influence

    - every RTS is showing us we can win irak (and we can obviously, it will take time, lots of time, but we can)
    - every sim is showing us that capitalism works (and it does, obviously :-p)
    - every game contains the christian mantra that every story ends well (which is, unfortunately, not true, although we try)
    - the whole concept of a PC is obviously a testament to individuality, which is the basis of capitalism (and one of its limits, as evidenced by the nobel prize economics 3 years ago)
    - the internet itself is a very democratic concept (everyone an ip, one-to-one communication, empowerment of the individual, ...)
    - linux itself (it may be free, but it was implemented as a cost-reduction strategy)
    - slashdot (which tries to have a "democratic" rating system) ...
    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Lars512 ( 957723 )

      every RTS is showing us we can win irak (and we can obviously, it will take time, lots of time, but we can)

      Clearly the administration hasn't harvested enough Tiberium yet =)

    • "- the internet itself is a very democratic concept (everyone an ip, one-to-one communication, empowerment of the individual, ...)"

      Bzzzt! Wrong! The Internet (or ARPANET, when it was officially begun as an expirement) existed to provide a fault tolerant communications system for the U.S. military who had come to rely on their wired communications for quick decision making in the battlefield. And anyone who has served in the military can tell you that it is still (for good reason) one of the least democrat

      • And those people who created it were seriously big believers in the western culture. Do you really think, if it would have been developed in china, that any-to-any communication would have been implemented ?
  • Had a dream for a global pornography network. Why else would you even have computers?

    In all seriousness, I think you are focusing only on a small subset of computing. By my 25th birthday I have had computing jobs in the US, Germany and Japan. Aside from some idiosyncrasies(cell phones that slice, dice, and make julian fries in Japan, cute robots etc) the bulk of computing is focused on automating processes and exchanging information. All cultures communicated before the invention of the computer, all
  • by gweihir ( 88907 ) on Saturday October 21, 2006 @07:02AM (#16527165)
    The algorithmic side has very little or no cultural bias at all, since it is Mathematics and there are only so many ways to do a certain thing. The user interface, and more important, what computers are used for is what I think you should concentrate on. Also, are there cultural differences in dealing with computers?
  • Diminishing Returns (Score:3, Interesting)

    by pipingguy ( 566974 ) * on Saturday October 21, 2006 @07:19AM (#16527221)
    I don't see much groundbreaking innovation for personal computers/software in the western world much past 2010. After a certain point, 95% of all applications are "good enough" and further upgrades will tend to be less and less important and practical for the average buyer. Affordable 3D graphics (not for gaming, I mean) is one area where we might see improvements and additional interest though.

    After all, software and computers are just an enabler to accomplish greater things, they do not do much all by themselves. One example I like is (non-software) engineering: if CAD, FEA and other computer-dependant fields magically went away tomorrow, would we, as a society worldwide, still be able to build things? Of course we would.

    The creation of a software-reliant workforce is nice in the sense that you have a theoretically mobile workforce that is easily able to transfer (computer) skills to another field of work and thus cushion the impact of economic change. However, this tends to lead to button-pushers that see things only as the machine presents it.
  • by mrjb ( 547783 ) on Saturday October 21, 2006 @08:15AM (#16527443)
    Disclaimer: These are wildly subjective.

    In Indonesia, computing culture has been shaped pretty much by software piracy. It's fairly hard to make a living on writing commercial (read: mass-produced) software as you will find your work copied and spread around from the moment you sell your first copy. Protecting your software other than by law is vital, as the copyright law isn't properly enforced.

    Also, with the average salaries there, some people might even be able to afford a computer (which will cost several months of salary), but no longer will have the means to pay for software. Back then, I even found myself using pirated software, not because I didn't *want* to use legal software but simply because legal software or even proper books weren't available. Mind you, this was before Linus wrote his famous Usenet post. As a result, it was terribly hard to find decent programmers in that area. Limitations in budget made it necessary to come up with creative, effective solutions. Only large companies and multinationals can afford custom-made software, as it is perceived as very expensive (even though programming services are hard to come by). Overall the culture doesn't support traditional software development, although the GNU movement has a good chance to work in such a setting.

    In Portugal, things are different. Frankly I think they are a bit behind in their computer science education. Universities there still teach COBOL, the horror. Corporate culture values hierarchy quite a bit- Things are sometimes done in a certain way 'because I say so' even if a better solution exists. Programmers are treated as 'resources' or 'factory workers'- if you want more productivity, push them harder (instead of finding a way to work more efficiently). If things don't work out as planned, it is always the programmer who is to blame, because upper management never makes mistakes. Needless to say, this goes against modern insights. Possibly this still has its roots in the dictatorship that used to reign the country.

    In Holland, up-to-date, proper education is no issue. The attitude is one of professionalism and open discussion. The upside of this is that if there is a problem, it will be clear where the source of the problem lies. The downside is that time may be wasted in meetings. Overall the culture helps support software development.

    In most countries I've seen, most of the people that call themselves 'programmer' have never received any formal education. Then again, this also goes for management. Depending on the country, there may be a smaller or bigger notion of what is 'the right way' to do things, but in many cases this is disregarded anyway.

    So, I would say culture definitely has a large impact on computing.
  • It's a programming language in Klingon. It was originally conceived as a vehicle for expressing how Klingons might think about computing and computer equipment.
  • Alternate PhD thesis: How computing technologies are shaped by other influences [] where they are originally created.

  • by ThufirHawat ( 524457 ) on Saturday October 21, 2006 @10:23AM (#16527999) Homepage
    José, Western doesn't mean much.
    You probably have to take a look first at cultural theorists,as e.g. Geert Hofstede (google for him).
    Once got yourself familiar with his formal theory, then you might look at other issues.
    In a paper I published in 1998, I wrote:
    "Conversation is, in the United States, based on utterances which are always non overlapping. Therefore the dialogue between SMTP servers is structured so that each takes its turn before acknowledging or replying to the other server.
    Had this been designed by an Italian, coming from a culture where instead a conversation is nearly invariably overlapping, then the exchange between SMTP servers would probably be multi-threaded, with the possibility to pass back and forth simultaneously a certain number of messages."
    This might indeed be a trivial example, but perhaps it is what you might be looking for.
  • by Nutria ( 679911 ) on Saturday October 21, 2006 @10:32AM (#16528055)
    'm starting my PhD in computing science and I'm interested in understanding how computing technologies are shaped by the cultural environment where they are originally created.

    Comp Sci???

    Are you sure you aren't really getting a PhD in Sociology??

    • by Hahnsoo ( 976162 )
      I could see this as a good topic for a Computer Science thesis, rather than a Sociology thesis. In a Sociology thesis, you'd do more exploration of the cultures and outside influences, whereas in a Computer Science thesis, you'd focus more on how these outside influences have historically determined the end-product and what sort of trends one can see in computing/programming based on culture. Either way, a lot of those megacorps would eat this stuff up, in terms of the "global economy" and outsourcing.
  • by CandyMan ( 15493 ) <javier&candeira,com> on Saturday October 21, 2006 @10:35AM (#16528089) Homepage
    A friend of mine told me that in a city in India someone put a computer with a touch screen in a street corner in a poor neighbourhood, where the street boys could play with it. They learnt to do things very quickly, and they started giving names to what they saw. "Windows" were "Fields", and "Icons" were "Houses". The "Pointer" was a "Bird"... I wonder what would come of Interface design in the hands and minds of people with totally different cultural constraints.

    I don't know anything more: the story sounds half-apocryphal to mee, and I apologise for its vagueness, but I still think it is relevant.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Mike1024 ( 184871 )
      I don't know anything more: the story sounds half-apocryphal to me, and I apologise for its vagueness

      It's [], not [] apocryphal [].

      From the article: "They invent their own terminology for what's going on. For example, they call the pointer of the mouse sui, which is Hindi for needle. More interesting is the hourglass that appears when something is happening. Most Indians have never heard of an hourglass. I asked them, "What does that mean?" They said, "It's a damru," which is Hindi for Shiva's drum. [The God] Shiva
      • by CandyMan ( 15493 )
        Oh, thanks a lot! I should have said that in turning it into hearsay, I made it half-apocryphal.

        And the links are really sweet. I wish I could spend my moderation points on your comment.
  • When people have a few more decades to look back inpartially I think it will be accepted that one of the keys to the last half of the 20th century was an exponentially increasing demographic shift from rural and blue-collar (often union) jobs to urban, pink-collar (almost invariably non-union) jobs. While technological development in these jobs has fantastically increased productivity and profits for corporations, the fact that workers have by-and-large not shared in these profits has been a major factor i
  • You might also consider specific subcultures, including corporate cultures, in your study. Look at the book "the HP Way" for an example of a once strong corporate culture than affected computer products. I've talked to HP employees from different countries and they all felt more affinity to HP's culture than to their own geographic culture.

    The larger point: don't forget self-selection biases. The people that make computing products are not random samples drawn from their respective cultures. They are pe
  • Your hypothesis has a basic error that will cause a lot of trouble for the other questions you are wondering about.

    At some level every (creation/invention/artwork) is the "embodiment of the particular idiosyncrasies... of the... creator" but what generally are acknowledged as the greatest or most influential of these creations are those that also are the most universal. These are the creations where the creators have been able to tap into something common to different cultures or underlying culture altogeth
  • I'm starting my PhD in computing science and I'm interested in understanding how computing technologies are shaped by the cultural environment where they are originally created.

    A good place to start would be to do a literature survey on human-computer interaction. In this case, you're not just interested in the ideas that the researchers published, but also their cultural backgrounds. You could also look at the articles published by Wired and Slashdot which covered how the various icons became famous (the
  • I think there is some support that the earliest written language had to do with accounting, just so software. Meet the tax man, whether she's queen, the elected officials, whomever.
    Managing transactions and communications, in a western way, if you choose to view it like that.
    Reductionism, breaking processes down into their component parts without putting them into context or the idea of their whole particularly well. (Workflow software)
    Control and bookkeeping.
  • A lot of OO languages seem to have originated in Northern Europe (Simula, C++, Beta, etc.), could that be a cultural thing?
  • You are making a hypothesis with a cause and effect assumption. Culture and technology emerge together.

    Culture drives the development of technology. Technology drives the development of culture. Neither is a cause or an effect. Both are a cause and an effect. To get a better idea of what I am talking about do a couple of things. Read a few books on Hinduism, Zen Buddhism, and the Dao to give yourself an idea of a non-western point of view. Try to imagine a world view that does not include original sin. Or,

I've finally learned what "upward compatible" means. It means we get to keep all our old mistakes. -- Dennie van Tassel