Culture on the Internet
Convergence is clearer than ever in the global context. The forces of “digital facilitation” are everywhere, changing the sense of place and identity, offering new vistas of possibility for human development. Simultaneously, these exciting tools for human progress challenge established ways of life. The collision of digital information with established ways of life offers heightened opportunities and risks in a contradictory melting pot.
Fundamentally, the internet incorporates the best and worst of human ingenuity, changing the way people live and understand the world. In other words, culture is changing because of the internet. In fact, culture has introduced key questions for national policy makers due to digital facilitation, as convergence creates an undifferentiated global mess of ideas about how to live and organise society. Policy questions have become increasingly urgent as the converged spaces of the internet point to differences about values; where localised concepts about political and national ideas are challenged by contrary global ideas.
This aspect of cultural change may be welcomed in some places while it is abhorred in others. While everyday life, work and leisure is open to dramatic change in some places, in others the traditional sense of life, work and leisure are reinforced by threats from outside. There are many ways to respond to these challenges.
For some policy makers, the internet prompts a defence of national culture by restricting access to the global values that run counter to national imperatives. The best example of this response to digital facilitation is the debate prompted by the approach of the Government of the People’s Republic of China, which limits public access to the global information resources of the internet by closely monitoring the digital entry points. The Chinese Government has adopted a position based on national interest by utilising an open model of internet use for commercial purposes which expands economic growth. In contrast, there are limits on the public availability of entertainment, political dissent and criticism. The Chinese approach mystifies outside observers who misunderstand the Chinese approach to politics which is based on the tradition of Confucian pragmatism: promote culture that helps build national commerce and government objectives. Ultimately, the Chinese approach incorporates a very long term view about national development.
Another approach to internet culture involves targeted systems of content management. For example, in the past year the Australian Labour Party Government has invoked a defence for Australian decency standards by proposing an internet filtering system. The idea is to keep out content that offends women and protects children from paedophiles. Opposition to the filtering system has been instructive: Australian opponents of the government filtering proposal have argued for free speech rights that mirror US speech rights, even though the tradition of free speech rights in Australian legal history differs markedly from the American version. This example shows how the global internet has assumed a US-centric view of speech rights and in doing so created confusion about the Australian definition of free speech. Is there an Australian tradition of US free speech or do you mean the Australian version of free speech differs from the US version?
To add to the challenge, Google executives weighed in to the Australian debate, advocating for free speech on the internet and against the proposed internet filter in Australia, opening up a number of additional considerations about culture. With Google’s executives intervening in a national debate the situation became less clear because as the world’s largest digital facilitator
Google’s interests have little to do with national policies and everything to do with the rapid circulation of global information. Was Google arguing for free speech rights or to remove constraints on their business? To complicate matters, under US law Google may have been arguing for commercial speech rights, not free speech rights, which are carefully distinguished in US law.
Confusing the matter further was the fact two different national political systems came into conflict. In social-democratically inclined nations such as Australia and much of western Europe the rights of children may be more actively defended by policies that regulate speech than in the liberal democracy model of the US, or vice versa. Furthermore, because Google’s reach is so massive who is to say that Google’s view does not become US policy by default? The question
is- does Google equal US culture?
How do massive global internet players translate their understanding of culture at a local and national level? Google offers yet another example. It discovered it could not operate in China the same way that it operated in the liberal west due to Chinese government regulations on internet content. Critics considered the Chinese regulations as censorship of the internet which collided with Google’s open approach to global information. To gain access to China, Google
had controversially allowed censorship of internet content in agreement with the Chinese Government. For several months in early 2010, public pressure appeared to herald a retreat from the Chinese market by Google.
In fact, it appeared as if China, the world’s biggest market of internet users, would benefit by Google giving up on that market. The result would be that a Chinese firm would replace the US Google. Such an outcome would have fed into national Chinese development objectives, where a national internet search engine company replacing Google would have marked the emergence of a shift away from globalisation of the internet. However, by mid-2010, Google’s
license to operate in China had been renewed following Google’s decision to route all its
internet traffic through Hong Kong, which would be open to Chinese Government scrutiny.
The nuances of national law and policy reflect deeply held views about the flow of information and ideas and how life should be lived as a result of that information. This is the foundation of the concern about culture and the internet. Consequently, it is producing emotionally charged arguments that make the struggle over culture a key marker in the debate about globalisation and the internet.
As national governments recognise the challenges to “culture” they have sought to build regulatory regimes around the internet. This is likely to continue for two major reasons. Firstly, regulation can be viewed as an act typical of politicians cynically milking national parochial interests in election campaigns. Secondly, national policies are a response to the challenges of globalisation which threaten to undermine national claims of political authority. Both responses are to be expected as global pressures raise questions about how governments should preserve national identities.
In the US, the national culture issue raised by the internet is security. Every digital communication on the internet now appears to be open to Federal US Government scrutiny. In July, The Washington Post reported it had calculated there are1271 US government
organisations and 1931 private companies working on counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence matters, while 1.7 billion emails, phone calls and other types of communication are intercepted every day. This kind of surveillance adds to a culture of anxiety in the US public sphere while suggesting massive Government overkill of existing privacy standards. This
approach to national security has a deadening affect on the capacity of the global internet to offer access to information. Consequently, questions are beginning to be asked about the way the internet and culture might be limited by security concerns as scepticism rises about the value of communications technology for personal interactions. Some US academics and critics are beginning to ask if surveillance will become normalised as an aspect of social media, thus reducing the currency of interpersonal communication.
Conversely, fundamentalism of every variety – from Christian to Muslim to Hindu extremism and
many more – is on the rise, utilising digital facilitation to generate hate and organise extremist acts of violence. There is a consensus in the west that democratically inclined nations cannot allow the internet to be used to undermine the security of its citizenry, so resources are redirected from technological innovation for human betterment to security, as noted in the US case. This resource allocation dilemma represents a victory for the fundamentalists and a diminution of the ambitions for using the internet to enrich the culture of society, where liberal views contest with each other for supremacy. The moment of open tolerance for ideas in western political history is rapidly ending – indeed it may already be over.
Of course, claims for society to offer human development opportunities are still tied to the internet and the richness of its culture which was famously argued by US Vice President Al Gore in the mid-1990s. Gore imagined a society where every citizen would be connected to the world by a seamless web of internet interactivity through a national broadband network. Those policy ideas which were described by the term “Global Information Infrastructure” are still wheeled out by politicians and policy makers, despite the counteracting forces described above.
The foreseeable future sees the internet being refined around national nodes, where the dominant global standards may no longer apply. Possible resulting scenarios include: English will not be the lingua franca as Chinese, Spanish and Cyrillic scripts jostle for space; Hollywood will not be the main source of visual media, as Indian and multinational entertainment gains audiences; Washington D.C. will not set the standard for liberal political discourse, as alternative sources of political theory such as that offered by Green political parties in Europe and Australia suggest sustainable environmental and community-based progressive approaches.
The inevitable fragmentation of digital facilitation will occur in differentiated locations. Nations will develop their own standards, perhaps dangerously refusing to interact with other nations to allow culture to flourish as a shared human resource. Nationalism may become a threat as governments use the internet to generate prejudicial notions of ethnic, racial and economic exceptionalism. Culture may shift from the rich diversity of globally shared possibilities through the internet to narrow exclusionary claims.
The question for innovation will flow from the emergence of communication systems that look more like Virtual Private Networks in which corporations exchange proprietary information for employees and thereby enrich themselves. Such a move could be to the detriment of the world public which has enjoyed nearly two decades of exciting growth of public interactions about culture on the internet. Public networks will be pressured to meet national public interest standards, which will be defined by governments. The management of security, decency and privacy concerns in a complicated world will become more pressing rather than less pressing. How to maintain the ambitions for public communication will be the challenge for many governments which see the internet as a vehicle for enhancing the flow of innovative ideas that help resolve policy challenges, even while they use new methods of regulation, surveillance and censorship.
This complex set of concerns and contradictions makes understanding culture a core skill set in making sense of the internet.
Marcus Breen is Associate Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at Northeastern University, Boston. His last book was Rock Dogs: Politics and the Australian
Music Industry. He is currently writing Uprising: The Internet’s Unintended Consequences. His
more recent article on internet policy issues is “Digital Determinism: The US-Australia Free
Trade Agreement and the Culture Industries”, in New Media and Society, October.