Cosmopolitan Ideal or Cybercentrism?
A Critical Examination of the Underlying
Assumptions of "The Electronic Global Village"

Charles Ess

Philosophy and Religion Department
Drury University

"The electronic global village" is a rhetorically compelling vision in contemporary discussion of U.S. and global trajectories (social, economic, and political) as mediated by new communications technologies - most centrally, computer-mediated communications such as the Internet and the World Wide Web.1 Underlying this vision, however, are a number of assumptions, including: the (Stoic) cosmopolitanism of "the global village," one which appears to presume a universal and universally intelligible/communicable humanity; the universal legitimacy of the cluster of values associated with this vision - including democracy (usually defined as a plebiscite in which all participants will enjoy a new, radical equality), free speech as free flow of information, economic prosperity as an unqualified good, etc.; a technological determinism assumed by the focus on software and hardware as leading, more or less inevitably, to greater democracy, prosperity, and peace; an allied focus on "communication" as not only a necessary, but (more or less) sufficient condition for generating the peaceable kingdom of the global village. Finally, each of these further intersect questions of gender: most broadly, we must consider how the complex interactions of gender, culture, technology and communication styles may shape attitudes towards and use of communications technologies - and thereby, how far the new global village will likely succeed in overcoming the strong misogyny characteristic of most cultures, in order to achieve a promised gender equality.

In the following, I briefly examine these assumptions, in order to sketch their limitations. This critique suggests that, contrary to its presumption of universal scope, the vision of the electronic global village may hold only a culturally-limited currency. I undertake this exercise not to discourage Western and European scholars from exploiting the global possibilities of the new communications technologies, but rather to encourage us to recognize and thereby avoid cultural differences which threaten to hinder rather than facilitate communication with others. Stoic cosmopolitanism - or Western ethnocentrism?

If I'm correct in seeing Stoic roots underlying the cosmopolitan vision of an electronic global village - such roots suggest that such a vision may hold greater legitimacy in Western traditions: that is, its overt claim to universal validity may be contradicted by a specifically Western origin and correspondingly limited scope of legitimacy. In particular, the cosmopolitan assumption of a universal "humanity," one which transcends all particular cultural differences and distinctions, thereby runs consciously counter to the tendency of most cultures towards some form of ethnocentrism - the assumption that our culture (whether American, Chinese, Japanese, etc.) is better than "the others." The presumption of a universal humanity, ostensibly humanizing as it seeks to overcome the barriers and hostilities sustained by ethnocentric contempt for "the Other," thus not only challenges directly a definitive element of identity in many local, overtly ethnocentric cultures: it thereby shows itself, paradoxically, to be a culturally-limited, rather than obviously universal, ideal. "Open the window, but swat the flies": culture and resistance to new communications technologies.

This broad tension between a universal intention and its distinctively Western roots is reflected in more precise ways in the characteristically Western preferences for democracy, free speech, and individualism - preferences, it is believed, which are somehow intrinsically carried by the very infrastructure of the new communications technologies. But central values of democratic governance, individualism, and affiliated conceptions of human rights (including the right to free speech) are not universally shared, as especially Asian responses to the rise of the Internet demonstrate.

While these countries welcome the economic advantages of the new technologies, they are mobilizing against inadvertently importing what are seen as the Western values conveyed by these technologies - sexual permissiveness, pornography, individualism, materialism/hedonism, and democratic polity itself (as precisely a central component of the utopian vision of the global village). These fears are not groundless: there is evidence that the new media do shape new, more individualized conceptions of self-identity - conceptions directly in conflict with traditional Asian world views (Goonasekera, 1990). Singapore's effort to carefully control the information conveyed through Internet connections so as to preserve Asian cultural values against Western permissiveness, etc., is especially well documented (Low, 1996; Wong, 1994; Sussman, 1991; on Malaysia, cf. Ang, 1990 ). Such resistance - in the name of preserving local and regional cultural identity - may or may not ultimately succeed.2 But this culturally-grounded resistance demonstrates that despite its presumption of universal validity, the conception of an "electronic global village," inhabited by wired individuals who all agree on the values of democracy, free speech, etc., remains a distinctively Western notion. Technological determinism: "Build it, and they will (be)come (Western)"

Underlying the utopian visions of "the digital future" appears to be a belief in technological determinism: in order to construct the new global village as an ethical, social, political, and economic community - all that is needed is to lay the requisite infrastructure of the new communications technologies. ("Build it, and they will become peaceful, democratic, free, and prosperous.")

Technological determinism is open to several objections, beginning within the field of philosophy of technology.3 As well, several contemporary examples suggest that new technologies - including communication technologies - both fail to achieve "top-down" models of cultural unification and are successfully incorporated by marginal individuals and communities to sustain and/or create important cultural values and concepts of identity. Resistance to the power of technology to reshape cultural attitudes and practices is suggested, for example, by Venturelli's analysis of the European Community's "Television without Frontiers" program's failure to build a transcultural sense of European identity via television (1993). From the other side, Tremblay (1995) documents the ability of immigrant communities in a new cultural environment to use new technologies to sustain their original cultural identification and thereby resist cultural assimilation. So, for example, (East) Indian immigrants throughout the world utilize VCR's and Indian-produced videotapes to preserve their linguistic and cultural identity. Communication: the panacea for all of humankind's ills?

Over against its presumed universalizing impacts, the belief in communication as central to resolving cultural and political differences may reflect not simply Western, but specifically American cultural values.

a) The focus on communication as a technology capable of overcoming natural limits to democracy is a centrally American cultural value, one tractable to Jefferson and Madison in the Federalist Papers (Carey, 1989). It is certainly demonstrable that different cultures display varying degrees of optimism regarding the potential of communication to realize greater democracy (Wang, 1991). This being so, our ready acceptance of the "electronic global village," as resting on new communication technologies, may reflect not simply a Western, but specifically an American cultural preference.

b) Far from being value- and culturally neutral, technologies may well embed specific values and cultural preferences. As an additional example: phone service in the U.S. is relatively cheap, widely dispersed, and reliable. Even in "Internet-intensive" regions such as Scandinavia, however, phone service is expensive - indeed, it is metered by the minute. Moreover, Scandinavian cultures are marked by a strong interest in preserving privacy. In this light, the American focus on unlimited time spent in an Internet chat room with total strangers - as an example of the sorts of communication we presume will bring about greater understanding, democracy, etc. - make little economic or cultural sense from a Scandinavian perspective. These examples suggest that "communication" is a culturally-sensitive process - not necessarily the immediate, transparent, universal process presumed in the belief that communication (somehow improved and made more transparent through the new technologies) is the magic bullet for resolving political and cultural conflicts.

c) CMC technologies are not only culture-bound, but favor culturally-specific communications styles. For example, most computer access is via a Roman keyboard: use of such a keyboard is relatively easy for people from countries using a Roman alphabet, but it obviously represents a foreign language for countries whose primary language range through Arabic, Greek, Cyrillic, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, etc. These overt differences may have more subtle and covert counterparts - e.g., there may be culturally distinctive "styles of thought" encouraged by Chinese and Japanese styles of writing vs. alphabetic writing systems. Such contrasts suggest that far from being a culturally-neutral, utterly transparent, and thus universally accessible and effective communications medium - CMC technologies may indeed be better suited to Western, specifically American communication styles.

"Trapped in Electronic Cages?": the Questions of Gender

A central presumption of the electronic global village is equality - including gender equality. But it is by no means clear that the new communications technologies - especially if they both convey specific cultural values and if their use and appropriation may reflect cultural attitudes in general and specific sorts of communication styles in particular - will guarantee equality among men and women.

To be sure, one strand of feminist scholarship celebrates an equality achieved in cyberspace by dint of abandoning the patriarchal realities of face-to-face communities (Hathaway, 1990). On the other hand, some work suggests that various factors - from communications preferences characteristic of males as favored by CMC environments, to the amplification of male biases by the relative anonymity of CMC technologies - contribute to an increased hostility against women in cyberspace (Adams, 1996; Herring, 1996). This work is consistent with the findings of earlier feminist analyses of technologies, including communications technologies such as the French Minitel system (Frissen, 1992, 41). More broadly, failure to take into account the specific cultural backgrounds of women involved in technology projects leads to failure (ibid). (For a more theoretical development of feminist approaches to technology, communication, and culture, see van Zoonen, 1992).

These findings suggest that the promise of gender equality in the electronic global village is a presumption open to critical appraisal. It further highlights the importance of critically examining the cluster of assumptions sketched out above from specifically feminist perspectives in philosophy, communication, and cultural studies.


I draw two conclusions from these considerations. One, philosophers - preferably in dialogue with colleagues in communication theory and cross-cultural communication - should unpack still more fully the whole range of philosophical assumptions underlying our enthusiasm for the new CMC technologies. We should start with a careful review of what is known of communication preferences in diverse cultures - including preferences associated with gender and gender roles - and consider very carefully how to avoid potential cross-cultural misunderstandings before we endorse without question a wholesale transformation of global communications in what may be a specifically Western, indeed American image. Two, especially philosophers will want to consider more carefully the universal validity of these underlying assumptions (e.g., regarding communication as a kind of political "magic bullet"; the cluster of values surrounding our preferences for democracy, free speech, and economic expansion; technological determinism, etc.) - and with these, what kind of global village we might endorse and work towards, as based on our best philosophical insights, not our unthinking acceptance of culturally-limited (indeed, capitalistically-driven) assumptions and beliefs.

The articles in this issue of Philosophy and Computers begin to address these questions. This August, philosophers, communication theorists, and cultural scientists from around the world will consider these issue in a three-day conference in London (U.K.) titled "Cultural Attitudes towards Technology and Communication" (CATaC). We invite readers of this Newsletter to review the conference web site and, if possible, join us in London for extended examination of these questions.


1. "The electronic global village" is intended to capture a collection of visions of our digital future, ranging from AT&T commercials to various popular and scholarly publications on "the information society." Proponents of an "information society" usually claim that the new communications technologies - specifically, the technologies of computer-mediated communication - will democratize organizations, societies, and the globe in revolutionary ways. This democratization is generally understood to mean greater equality, both in terms of access to information, and in terms of communication across otherwise entrenched boundaries - boundaries between rich and poor, male and female, and "friend" and "enemy" as defined by one's membership in a given ethnic group, nation-state, etc. (see Ess, 1996, 198-201).

2. A central question here is whether a new "virtual culture," one that transcends local and regional cultural boundaries, can be generated and sustained through the new technologies. Recent research suggests, however, that there remains an intractable, culturally-shaped connection between individuals in local communities and any "virtual communities" emerging in cyberspace: this in turn implies that any such communities will be shaped by its constituent individuals and their respective cultural values, rather than entirely transcend those values (Argyle and Shields, 1996; Baym, 1995, Bromberg, 1996). In this light, the belief that cyberspace and its supposedly virtual cultures constitute a "better" culture than those characterized by face-to-face communication emerges as its own form of (unjustified) ethnocentrism - one we might call "cybercentrism."

3. Street (1992) synthesizes many of these objections in what he calls a "cultural approach" to technology, precisely in order to address the problem of democratic control of new technologies, control both promised and potentially frustrated by the new communications technologies (cf. Volti, 1995). Both Street and Ihde (1994), moreover, counter the claims of technological determinism in part precisely by documenting how different cultures respond in different ways to technology and technological innovations.


Adams, Carol J. 1996. "This is Not Our Fathers' Pornography": Sex, Lies, and Computers. In Philosophical Perspectives on Computer-Mediated Communication, ed. Charles Ess, 147-170. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

Ang, Ien. 1990. "Culture and communication: Towards an ethnographic critique of media consumption in the transnational media system.", European Journal of Communication, 5, (2-3, June), 239-260. Carey, James. 1989. Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Society. Boston: Unwin Hyman.

Argyle, Katie and Rob Shields. 1996. Is there a Body in the Net? In Cultures of Internet: Virtual Spaces, Real Histories, Living Bodies, ed. Rob Shields, 58-69. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Baym, Nancy K. 1995. The Emergence of Community in Computer-Mediated Communication. In CyberSociety: Computer-Mediated Communication and Community, ed. Steven G. Jones, 138-163. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Bromberg, Heather. 1996. Are MUDs Communities? Identity , Belonging and Consciousness in Virtual Worlds. In Cultures of Internet: Virtual Spaces, Real Histories, Living Bodies, ed. Rob Shields, 143-152. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage

Ess, Charles. 1996. "The Political Computer: Democracy, CMC, and Habermas." In Philosophical Perspectives on Computer-Mediated Communication, ed. Charles Ess, 197-230. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

Frissen, Valerie. 1992. "Trapped in electronic cages? Gender and New Information Technologies in the Public and Private Domain: An Overview of Research." Media, Culture and Society, Vol. 14, 31-49.

Goonasekera, Anura. 1990. Communication, Culture and the Growth of the Individual Self in Third World Societies. Asian Journal of Communication 1:1, 34-52

Hathaway, Donna J. 1990. A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century. In Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, 149-181. New York: Routledge.

Herring, Susan. 1996. "Posting in a Different Voice: Gender and Ethics in Computer-Mediated Communication." In Philosophical Perspectives on Computer-Mediated Communication, ed. Charles Ess, 115-145, Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

Low, Linda. 1996. Social and economic issues in an information society: A Southeast Asian perspective. Asian Journal of Communication, 6 (1), 1-17

Street, John. 1992. Politics and Technology. New York: Guilford Press.

Sussman, Gerald. 1991. The "Tiger" from Lion City: Singapore's Niche in the New International Division of Communication and Information, in Sussman and John Lent, Eds.,Transnational Communications: Wiring the Third World. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications, pp. 279-308.

Tremblay, Gaetan. 1995. The information society: From Fordism to Gatesism. Canadian Journal of Communication. 20, (4, Autumn), 461-482.

van Zoonen, Liesbet. 1992. Feminist theory and information technology, in Media, Culture and Society, Vol. 14, 9-29.

Venturelli, Shalini S, 1993, "The Imagined Transnational Public Sphere in the European Community's Broadcast Philosophy: Implications for Democracy."European Journal of Communication. 8, (4, December), 491-518.

Wang, Georgette. (1991). Information society in their mind: A survey of college students in seven nations. Asian Journal of Communication. 1, (2), 1-18.

Volti, Rudi. 1995. Society and Technological Change, 3rd ed. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Wong, Kokkeong. 1994. Media, culture, and controlled commodification: The case of peripheral Singapore. Advances in Telematics. 2, 144-165.

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