CULTURAL IDENTITY IN THE AGE OF INTERNET TECHNOLOGY


INTRODUCTION

In contemporary academia, it has become a commonplace to emphasize that our world is undergoing an identity crisis. Actually, questioning identity formation has been debated so far; nevertheless, the signs of this crisis particularly in social and cultural studies are abundantly increasing as we go through the global, postmodern and information era in which the concept of identity turns out to be more problematic and complex than ever before.

Because of the rapid innovations in information and communication technology (ICT), it is important to examine how identity construction has become increasingly complicated. ICT have minimized geographic limitations and have enabled virtual relationships and new social identities through instantaneous global communications. The development of these relationships and identities radically increases the number of interfaces between people and provides increased opportunities for cultural, social and political exchanges between and among people on a global level regardless of geographic location and time zone. Appadurai (1996) and Castells (1996) propose that we look at the modern network society dynamically in terms of disjunctive, networks of flows of things, people, ideas and finance that get transformed and organized. It is in this sense that the question of how ICT is involved in the transformations of cultural identities in the era of changing patterns of global and local image and information spaces has become one of the emerging issue in these days. I argue that, in order to understand such an issue, one need to analyze it in the time-space contexts and power relations that have shaped our global world.

WHAT IS IDENTITY AND HOW IS IT CONSTITUTED?

Within the historical evolution of the concept of the identity, there are two common, but opposite, approaches to the questions of what identity means and how it is constituted. In prevalent and traditional approach, especially before the industrial revolution, identity is defined as a constitution based on the recognition of familiar and shared derivations including but not limited to ethnic, linguistic, religious, historical, territorial, cultural and political attributes with other people, groups or ideal (Hall, 1994, 1996). The concepts of familiarity and share in this definition are also associated with the meanings of sameness, belongingness and unity. From this perspective, cultural identity is a “one, shared culture, a sort of collective ‘one true self,’ hiding inside the many other, more superficial or artificially imposed ‘selves,’ which people with a shared history and ancestry hold in common” (p. 394). As Grossberg (1996) contends, the problematic belief in this analysis is that there is some intrinsic and essential content to any identity which is characterized by either a common origin or a common structure of experience or both. One can be deemed to be born along with his or her identity that appears to act as the sign of an identical harmony. In this regard, identity is determined more likely as a naturalistic and static formation that could always be sustained. This conventional view sees individual as a unique, stable and whole entity.

On the other hand, the discursive approach, as Hall (1996) goes on, delineates identification as “a process never completed and logged in contingency” (p. 2) while not denying that identity has a past. It is always in the process of becoming rather than being, accordingly, it is constantly changing and transforming within the historical, social and cultural developments and practices such as globalization, modernity, post-colonization, and new innovations in technology. It is not a something to have or to be, yet a resource to use and an action to do.

According to this constructionists and discursive view, an individual is a socio-historical and socio-cultural product and identity is not biologically pre-given to a person, instead, he or she occupies it, and more importantly, this occupation may include different and multiple identities at different points of time and settings (Gergen, 1991; Hall, Held & McGrew, 1992).

THE IMPACTS OF ICT ON IDENTITY FORMATION

Contemporary consideration of the status of identity has been greatly facilitated by the spread of information technologies (Castells 1997; Turkle, 1997; Poster, 2001). In some cases, the diffusion of a technology developed in an external society has dramatic consequences for our way of life and culture. When a new technology is introduced, we usually consider the artifact itself: its appearance, utility, popularity, aesthetic and cool features;

because media compels us to do so. Not often do we think about its history, social shaping, or as Du Gay et al. suggest in their cultural study of the Walkman, how it is represented, what social identities are associated with it, how it is produced and consumed, and what mechanisms regulate its distribution and use. Social changes and identities are influenced if not determined by technological innovations because technology is more than a machine and can very well convey information and embody social and cultural dimensions that shape society. MacKenzie and Wajcman (1999) remind us that the prevailing way of thinking about technology is still technological determinism that acknowledges a one-way relationship between technology and society in which technology causes social change and impacts on people. Moreover, substantive theory of technology argues that technology is not a good, bad, neutral or apolitical tool (Ellul, 1964; Heidegger, 1977), instead, it is embedded with values and ideologies shaping people’s consciousness (Postman, 1993), and “constitutes a new type of cultural system that restructure the entire social world as an object of control” (Pacey, 1992: p. 7). Therefore, technology can bring substantial changes to culture along with it that manipulate the way people communicate both at the material and virtual level, and also how they see the world. Turkle (1997) suggests that engagement with the new technology “challenge what many people have traditionally called `identity`; a sense of self is recast in terms of multiple windows and parallel lives” (p. 73).

The virtual interactive spaces mediated through the synchronous and asynchronous communication tools such as bulletin boards, chat rooms, instant messaging and mailing lists transforms traditional notions of identity (stable, fixed, sameness, etc.) into the notions of multiplicity, fluidity and difference. Turkle (1995) explain this by incorporating Gergen`s (1991) notion of the “saturated self” in which communication technologies allow people to “colonize each others brains” by continuous construction, reconstruction and negotiation of their identities with the ability to have relationships across the globe and the knowledge of other cultures.

IMPLICATIONS FOR EDUCATION

First of all, instead of a positivistic and optimistic approach to technology use in education, which looks for a technological fix to educational problems, the emphasis should be solving educational problems by not advocating computers or other technological tools for the sake of technology, instead, by questioning their proper role in educational settings and reflecting on how technology may cause both positive and unintended negative results in social environments. Since educational technology is a resource that encompasses political, cultural and social dimensions, it needs to be placed in the hands of teachers who are culturally aware of the nonneutral aspect of it. The ways in which children come to understand the world are learned through imagery.

Images consume children’s daily experiences and are prevalent throughout educational media and computer software. Educators who understand the potential impact of cultural media on children can be influential in teaching students to read representational meanings of media artifacts.

With teens consuming the greatest number of hours watching television and playing video games, kids between the ages of 8-18 spend an equivalent of six hours each day or 40 hours a week using media (Roberts, 1999). Such amount of time that children devote to media exacerbates a growing concern that media sources like television and video games have the potential to distort children’s worldviews. This is an important concern for educators and parents because most of the time magazines, television, film, and computer video graphics are incorporated into the curriculum. When such media are associated with youth culture, they construct representations of the world and serve as socializing agents, providing young people with beliefs about the behaviors of the world

(Considine & Haley, 1999).

 

CONCLUSION

In fact, Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) have changed people’s relations and the meaning of time and space and have reduced distance and have demolished political boundaries while increasing interactions between people, governments and cultures. Television and especially radio now have reached to all people in the deepest rural areas of Iran, China and India. From Brazilian music in Tokyo to African films in Bangkok the focus has become global.

Through information and communications technologies, the people on earth are exposed to foreign identities and ideas and face the menace of losing their national and religious identities. In fact, information and communications technologies have been considered part of the process of liberal-capitalist modernity or Westernization and involve processes of unequal power, which brings old practices and religious identities into question, thus raising the potential for conflict

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