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Web Of Deceit

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Given its global reach, the Internet seems a perfect medium for furthering cultural awareness. Yet, as always with technology, some not-so-obvious issues cast doubt on that assumption. Having taught in the United States and abroad, I have helped young people from many parts of the world work together on Internet projects that focus on their lives and lands, and these experiences have led me to wonder whether electronic "cultural exchanges" do more to mislead students than to educate them.

For the past five years, I have been involved with designing and coordinating high school telecomputing projects under the umbrella title "Utopian Visions." Not long after I started, I attended a workshop at which a national Net figure extolled the virtues of electronic multicultural exchanges. As an example, she spoke of a group of 4th graders in North Carolina who shared information about their lives with students in Alaska. "What struck these students most," the woman said, "was that students in Alaska eat at Pizza Hut just like they do." Her point—which was greeted with nods of approval from the audience—was that such exchanges are often valuable not so much to help students discover the differences in people from different parts of the world but to help them see the similarities.

Eating at Pizza Hut is a pretty superficial similarity. But this Net expert is right in a more troubling way. Regardless of where they live in the world, students with Net access most certainly are much more similar than they are dissimilar; they share, I fear, a common techno-culture that subsumes local cultures.

I taught for several years in Quito, Ecuador, at Academia Cotopaxi, a private international school that is one of the few K-12 schools in that country with Internet access. Although differences in customs separated the Ecuadorian students attending Cotopaxi and the Iowa students I taught back in the United States and the German students I would teach later, all these youngsters shared a remarkably similar world view. By contrast, a veritable canyon separated those Cotopaxi students and the poverty-stricken Ecuadorian children living just 20 miles outside the city. The lives and lifestyles of these children were typical of both the high Andean and Amazon basin indigenous groups that still make up a sizable part of Ecuador's population. They attended schools without indoor plumbing, much less a telephone, and they lived in houses with thatched roofs and followed traditions that predate the Incas.

But it was the affluent youngsters, a small group accustomed to cable TV and vacations in Miami, who conveyed their impressions of life in Ecuador to other similarly influenced, techno-elite children around the world. This global network of techno-haves reinforces each others' impressions that they live in a homogeneous thought-world, leading Net gurus to extol the virtue of the Internet as a means for discovering commonalities among "all" people of the world. The irony is, of course, that the similarities being discovered are those that technology itself has spread.

This illusion of the world as a place united in common values was made even more clear to me during one of the Utopian Visions projects I coordinated. We started the project by asking the students involved from around the world to send e-mail messages describing their visions of a utopian society. When more than 100 students fired off their vision statements to us, we faced the monumental task of separating, sorting, and posting each message on the project's World Wide Web site. I gave instructions that were aimed at speeding the process but resulted instead in disaster: The students stripped out the identifying information from the messages. Without that information, we had no idea where in the world they had come from.

Discovering the mistake, I suggested that the students read each utopian statement with an eye for lingual quirks and other clues to its origin. Because these were visions of a perfect society, I figured that we would pin down the home continent of each author at the very least. But the students reported little success. I chuckled at this—perhaps these Midwestern kids lack multicultural awareness, I figured, and I took on the investigation myself. Having lived on three continents, I assumed I would easily spot different cultural orientations. But I fared no better. The more than 100 statements came from Australia, Asia, Eastern and Western Europe, and North America, but in the vast majority, we could detect no cultural fingerprints.

Perhaps the world really is beginning to sing in perfect harmony. But I don't think so. To me, this youthful global village is more reminiscent of the self-justifying clubbiness of the far-flung colonials of the British Empire of just a century ago. As these Brits milled about in their exclusive communities, their transplanted British culture was so self-contained and insulated that for most, the indigenous cultures they ruled over were rendered invisible.

That indigenous cultures are invisible on the Net seems beyond dispute (though well-intentioned techno-elites—including me—occasionally try to give them a presence on-line). And providing "equitable" access is not the answer. As Jerry Mander's In the Absence of the Sacred and Stephan Kill's The Tragedy of Technology make depressingly clear, non-technological societies cannot communicate electronically without changing the way they think, the way they act, the way they live—in other words, without abandoning their traditional cultures. So experiencing their way of thinking through Net communications is impossible. Yet children all over America now look at exotic pictures from National Geographic and Microsoft's Encarta thinking that they are getting a taste of the lives of the people portrayed there by corresponding with fellow techno-haves who happen to live in the same country. It is an illusion I have found few American teachers prepared to unveil.

Not only are we deceiving our children about these non-technological cultures, but the spread of the global communications grid seems to be playing a big role in exterminating them. We know that culture is tied closely to language. Linguists estimate that half the world's 6,000 languages will become extinct in the next century and that 2,000 of the remaining languages will be threatened during the 22nd century. Certainly the spread of the Net, which has increased the demand for the use of regional, national, and global languages like English, Spanish, and Japanese, will accelerate this trend.

And we in education face a paradox that too few recognize: Our students, in seeking out multicultural experiences through the Internet, contribute to the demise of those very societies that provide the only really fundamental cultural diversity left on the planet.

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