Culture in Technology vs. of Technology: Why Understanding Human Differences Matter!
Culture in Technology vs. the Culture of Technology: Why Understanding Human Differences Matters!
Friday, November 14, 2003
3:00 - 4:15 pm
Bruce La Brack, Professor of Anthropology & International Studies, School of International Studies- University of the Pacific
First, I would like to thank your organizing committee here at Project Kaleidoscope, and Jeanne Narum and Brian Whalen particularly, for the chance to address this assembly on a subject I believe should be part of every undergraduate's general education and a component especially crucial to international scientific practice and global research. The title given in the program "Why Understanding Human Differences Matters" is actually a clarifying coda to the subject I will focus upon today, which is "Culture in Technology vs. the Culture of Technology."
I hope to convey to you the ways the topic is linked to this assembly's theme of Infusing a Global Dimension into Undergraduate STEM Programs. I appreciate very much that an organization which is doing such cutting-edge work on the pedagogy and assessment of scientific education is interested in views of a cultural anthropologist, albeit one with long-standing interests in cross-cultural training and its role in academic and corporate settings.
Culture is what gives specific meaning to being human and provides a bewildering array of ways to do it. Some of culture is overt like the way we dress and how we act, but most of it resides deep within our psyche. It is largely hidden and is expressed not as a whole, but through a series of enactments with other people. How we communicate, what we think is valuable to pass on to the next generation, and the values we live by are all part of the mosaic that comprises the multiple realities we face every day.
Let me note at the very outset that the work you have been doing since 1989 is an extraordinary model for science education. Thus, when I identify and detail cultural challenges inherent in the practice of science, I do so not because you are not already aware of the issues, but rather to reinforce how important it is to recognize the impact cultural concerns can have on technical and scientific cooperation and progress.
What I have to say today will be more along the lines of reminder or reiteration of how important culture is as a variable in the world of scientific innovation and rational philosophy-not to mention marketing, product development, and almost any endeavor in which human beings interact or intersect in intercultural settings. More importantly, whenever culture's effects or influences are ignored, the consequences are often dysfunctional, frustrating, and counterproductive. Culture can quickly reassert its emotional primacy in ways and under circumstances that are undesirable.
However, before we begin, I must make clear that I do not believe that cultural factors and scientific factors are necessarily equal in impact. Take the September 23, 1999, fiasco when the Mars Climate Orbiter spacecraft was lost when instead of orbiting, it plunged into Mars because it arrived some 90 kilometers (56 miles) too close after a voyage of some 416 million miles! The loss was caused because the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory officials expected the small control thrusters to be calibrated in newtons, while the contractor, Lockheed Martin Astronautics, actually calibrated the force in the English unit, pounds.
That was a $125 million dollar mistake. It was primarily a failure of engineering oversight. Nevertheless, the fact remains that both the metric and English systems arose out of historical, cultural, and scientific circumstances. Although the US officially adopted the metric system in 1890, the reluctance of American society to embrace and fully implement the metric system used by every other industrial nation is notable. Certainly it is at least partially driven by cultural resistance and not clear scientific reasons. What I am suggesting is that even where there are obvious technical failures of communication, there may also be cultural factors at work. I will offer today a number of examples in which cultural factors seem to play an important role. Keeping with the space theme, let us turn to my first case.
It was a joint-project between a team of Russian space scientists and a team of their American counterparts. The Russians were brought to Texas by a well-known US government agency to work on a set of very important problems involving issues related to long-term space exploration. Specifically, they were to jointly conduct scientific research related to extended space travel, using a US satellite launched by a Russian rocket. Since the Russians had the greatest practical experience in living and working in space, including a number of astronaut-endurance records, and the Americans had cutting-edge technology, and both sides were supposedly committed to furthering international cooperation, the results should have been excellent. At no time during the project did either side ever accuse the other of intellectual incompetence or poor preparation, but the entire venture reportedly foundered on what became a total lack of trust.
Some of the details remain classified, but one aspect that is not is that from the beginning, the Americans often thought the Russians were being brusque and condescending, if not downright angry in meeting after meeting. This led to some long-standing personal animus and reciprocal behavior. Report after project report mentions "building mutual trust by reducing any threats by the teams to each other," cultivating "mutual respect," and "taking measures to assure each team is perceived to have integrity, and is responsible." These are not indications of a smooth relationship!
I do not have first-hand information about all the cultural details, but one thing I can tell you definitely is that the normal Russian language pitch goes down at the end of a sentence and the normal American pitch pattern generally rises. As a result, many Russians sound to many Americans as though they are perpetually annoyed whether speaking Russian or English. It is a common phenomenon in a US classroom where Americans are initially learning Russian by immersion, to feel uncomfortable and slightly anxious by what appears to be a continual negative tone, even when what the teacher is actually saying is positive. Language tone was obviously not the sole cultural issue, but it seems to have played some role in creating a wary and tension-laden atmosphere within the Russian and American joint-venture.
The unhappy result was that after thousands of project hours over several years, the satellite failed to deploy properly and was immediately lost, costing several millions of dollars. As a result of the failure, all of the Russian team members lost their jobs and one was almost jailed upon return to Russia. The US project lead engineer was demoted. The failure was primarily and officially attributed to the fact that, although the US and Russian components fit together physically, the electronic interfaces were not compatible between the two technologies.
The more interesting question is: was this solely a technical problem (like the Mars Climate Orbiter mentioned earlier) or a technical issue in which cultural factors played a significant contributing role? It should be noted here that the agency involved has long been accused of not taking the human software factors (i.e., cultural issues) sufficiently into account. In the entire history of the organization, so far as I know, it was rare for anyone to be offered intercultural communication or cross-cultural adjustment training. One notable exception was the during the early 1990's when intercultural training was offered to multicultural teams of astronauts and their ground crews as part of the Space Station Freedom program. However, there certainly was none for either the Russian team or the Americans in this specific instance.
Communication as a topic was again given prominence in the news when in October 2003 NASA publicly acknowledged that communication failures played a major role on the loss of the Challenger. Opinions on how to fix the problems still divide the agency. Wayne Hayle, newly appointed deputy director of the shuttle program, said that in addition to technical issues he's trying to figure out "how to deal with the human question, the human element in those communication issues." Meanwhile, Milt Heflin, an Apollo veteran who heads NASA's flight directors' office, is not so sure. He was quoted as saying, "Culture. I don't know exactly what that word means. I'm going to find out, I'm sure, in the next year or so what it means."
So let me take a few minutes to talk about what I think culture is and how it can be a force for synergy or a really, really difficult obstacle to getting a technical project done or working cooperatively in diverse groups.
I came across a quote some time ago and would like to share it with you as it goes to the heart of my argument.
"In a world that often separates science and culture like church and state the reality of culture in both arenas is not so easily dismissed, because it can just as frequently under gird and support the goals of science as it can undermine and make unattainable those same goals. The trick is to see culture not as a set specific of practices but a mindset within a mindset."
So what is this mindset? While culture has almost as many definitions as art and justice, most agree that culture is the non-biological heritage of human beings that has allowed us to assert some serious dominance over our environment and all other life forms within it. Initially, as a species, we have few useful instincts. We are dependent upon others for our very survival for a much longer period than any other creature on earth. We are not born with "culture" any more than we are born fluent in a specific language. All of this comes to us much later. For our purposes today, I want to define "culture" as it is used in intercultural communication, as the "learned and shared values, beliefs, and behaviors of a group of interacting people." Further I want to concentrate on "subjective culture" or the psychological features of culture, including assumptions and patterns of thinking and acting.
At first, we acquire our specific cultures through our five senses and the imitation of behavioral and language patterns; eventually, this process is followed by formal and informal learning and mentoring throughout our lives. What we are born with, if we are fortunate and in no way impaired, is the capacity to profit from the knowledge and experiences of others, and to pass this body of wisdom on to others. Science, incidentally, is just one special form of knowledge that constitutes our collective human heritage.
But this culture learning contains a dialectic-and one that has some steep costs associated with it. For example, we can easily learn any language or languages well enough to pass as a native speaker in intonation and syntax up to about age seven. After that it becomes increasingly difficult to both learn and reproduce new linguistic forms, as anyone who has ever attempted it as an adult knows. Not impossible, just much more difficult and the result is often less than fluency.
In other words, if from an early age we do not practice certain physical motions with our tongue, throat, soft palate, and lungs, they are unlikely to become automatic and allow us to flawlessly reproduce the effortless vocalizations of adult native speakers, or for that matter, even young children. The International Phonetic Alphabet has some 100+ symbols that can be used to record any human sound that has meaning for all of the nearly 6,000 living languages that are currently spoken worldwide. But most of us learn only one or two languages in our lives, as language is largely bequeathed to us by our parents and geography.
Moreover, the majority of languages employ a total of only 20-35 sounds and even some of those are infrequently used. Written American-English uses only 26 orthographic notations or letters which can stand for some 28 sounds. But no language ever spoken has used anything remotely close to the total possible range of sounds humans are capable of creating. Language, like culture generally, is selective. We humans use relatively few sounds to make all the millions of morphemes or words. Yet even short single words can cause major problems cross-culturally. Firms doing business worldwide have found this slippery ground indeed, particularly for those linguistically naive or careless.
From a marketing and communication standpoint this is not all academic, for more faux pas have been committed in the realm of "poor word choice" than in almost any other category of product advertisement errors such as inappropriate colors or gestures. There is actually an annual Chevy Nova award competition in which the worst and most embarrassing mistakes vie for the honor of First Place. Of course, we all know about, and are amused by, the classic error some years ago when GM exported to Central and South American countries the Nova model which means "Won't Go" in Spanish. But Ford also introduced the Pinto a few years later, and "pinto" is used as slang to refer to "a diminutive male member" among some Spanish speakers.
You would think that people would learn from such fiascos but in the past several years we have many new examples. The Dairy industry's successful "Got Milk?" campaign was expanded to Mexico with the result that all over the country signs were being read by Spanish speakers as "Are You Lactating?" Clairol introduced a curling iron called the "Mist Stick" into Germany, only to find out that "mist" is colloquial German for manure and few people were buying their product. Nike recently got in trouble in the Islamic world with design lettering on athletic shoes that resembled Koranic script. And it is not only Americans who can err. A Scandinavian vacuum manufacturer used the tag line in some US advertising, "Nothing Sucks Like an Electrolux," and a Japanese firm tried to market a bright yellow mini-bike as a "Lemon." My personal favorite is Frank Perdue's chicken slogan, "It takes a strong man to make a tender chicken," which when translated into Spanish (apparently a tricky language), proclaimed "It takes an aroused man to make a chicken affectionate." These examples could all have been avoided if there was a culturally competent, fully bilingual translator who understood the nuances of both languages and the dangers of literal versus colloquial interpretation.
It is important to note that most of these errors were in major Indo-European languages that are at least cognates of English. The potential for serious miscommunication expands greatly in Japanese, Swahili, Chinese, or Thai. And most of the errors mentioned involved only a single word or a relatively simple concept, not a system or a complex, abstract subject.
In case you are wondering where all this is going, it is an example of "facts as metaphor" because all of culture, not just language, is like this. That is, from the arc of all the world's possible beliefs, behaviors, vocalizations, foods, values, and ideas, any single culture chooses to emphasize a quite restricted selection for its children. From a universe of possibilities, the cultural variations we are trained to mimic, and usually affectively embrace, are but a tiny sample of those that actually exist. However, all these patterns, however constructed, are deeply rooted in the human psyche and its need for regularity, predictability, and security in daily interaction.
What is important to understand is that much of what we learn from our culture is unconscious, normally below the threshold of our everyday perception. We learn a language with its vocabulary, syntax, and grammar without a single lesson in diagramming sentences. We acquire a personal body space without thinking about it and without anyone ever overtly discussing it with us. Yet, every human being unconsciously acquires a standardized sense of personal space that varies very little within a culture but substantially between cultures.
We all learn turn-taking behavior in conversation, greeting and leave-taking rituals, contextually appropriate language patterns, and literally hundreds of thousands of cultural cues, conventions, and especially the subconscious criteria to make judgments about what others mean when they display certain kinds of behavior or engage in certain kinds of speech acts.
So we are culturally programmed to act and react in ways that are familiar and comfortable and to negatively evaluate others who do not "act right." This was fine so long as we lived in isolated, tribal communities on subsistence economies or barter trade. We could afford to be ethnocentric, xenophobic and dismissive of other types of cultures-at least those parts we considered inferior to our own.
What do we do now, when the interconnectedness and speed of communication and business transactions is exponentially increasing and competition is global and ferocious? How does any national educational system begin to train its students to recognize their own cultural influences and their culture's attendant attitudes towards difference? Moreover, why would they wish to without a compelling and valid intellectual argument about the benefits of doing so?
In any case, what we can't do is become non- or a-cultural, because the universal requirement of attaining human status is to become a member of a family, a community, a culture, and a nation. A very wise and successful Japanese businessman once said to me that he did not believe one could become a good internationalist unless one was first a good nationalist, by which he meant a person who knew and practiced the rules of his or her culture. I think he is essentially correct.
However, to make that shift from being monocultural to thinking as a cosmopolitan internationalist can be quite difficult. No culture I am aware of positively reinforces that kind of global mindedness, and few make any sustained effort to teach the thoughtful acceptance and appreciation of difference that is necessary to function effectively in multiple cultural systems. Actually, most cultures actively work against the concept of "cultural relativism" in which, at least initially, an observer is advised to refrain from making any value judgment when encountering new behaviors or ideas. In reality, the greater the contrast between cultures, the more difficult this becomes.
One of the areas in which this seems it should be less of an issue is in the domain of science and complex contemporary technology where the universal language of mathematics, the discipline of scientific inquiry, the rules of logic, and requirements of replication all seem, and I stress seem, culturally neutral even if they originated from a largely Western tradition informed by Greek, Arabic, Chinese, Indian, and other historic sources. However, we also know that if you put a highly educated and technically proficient group of Greek, Saudi Arabian, Chinese, Indian, German, Australian, and US-American engineers together on a work team, the issues are no longer likely to be purely or simply mechanical or scientific.
Even the common bridge of English language will not solve a number of cultural problems. English is useful as far as it goes. Just as Latin was the linguistic depository and code of the scientific world for some 300 years, English seems to be occupying that niche currently and should provide an adequate lingua franca. Yet an allegedly common language may obscure as much as it communicates.
For example, there is a famous, precedent setting, US court case in which an American firm was suing a Swiss importing firm for breech of contract when the Swiss refused a very large shipment of what the Americans called "chicken" and the Swiss denied were chickens by their definition. The case hinged upon the difference between younger, cut-up chickens meant for frying or roasting, and older chickens packaged in a certain way and meant for stewing (Friglaiment Importing Co. vs. BNS International Sales Corp. Federal District Court. Friendly 190-F. Supp. 116 (1960)). In commentary on the case, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes was quoted thus: "the making of a contract depends not on the agreement of two minds in one intention, but on the agreement of two sets of external signs-not on the parties having meant the same thing but on their having said the same thing."
The Swiss lost the suit but the Americans also lost a customer and both parties were unhappy. On a more contemporary note, consider the current European Common Market problems with and debates over definitions of wine, cheese, bread, chocolate, and truffles, and you can see that core conflicts over cultural definitions are still with us. All this can be maddening to those who like clarity in their lives and simplicity in their cultural interactions.
Culture is not just a mind-set, but also an unruly and constantly shifting immense bundle of mind-sets. Adding more cultural components to an already existing social setting just makes it more complicated and increases the danger of miscommunication.
Science seems another matter. Science is also a mindset, but it relies upon and values precision, testability, quantification, and repetition. It is usually conceived of as universal, cumulative, subject to falsification, and is as concerned with pure research as practical applications. Culture as a mindset, shares little with science because culture is highly particularistic, often morally and philosophically self-referencing, resistant to change, often immune to external criticism, often works at an unconscious level, and is, on occasion, decidedly impractical and may even be maladaptive.
If one wants to validate this claim just take those same seven culturally diverse, highly trained, English-speaking engineers mentioned earlier, put them on a team project and observe them over time. Cultural differences will absolutely play a role in how successfully they work together and how they view each other. How big or how small the effect will be is an open question, but it will always have some effect.
This has nothing to do with how willing they are to do their jobs or the level of their expertise, but the simple fact that they, like the rest of us, can never wholly escape our initial enculturation. For example, when you think of "comfort foods" and formative "firsts" in one's life, they inevitably originate from a place between infancy and sub-adulthood. How this plays out later in life can range from interesting to disastrous, depending upon how self-aware we are of our cultural baggage and its impact upon others who do not share that cognitive framework.
Let me offer three additional cases I have recently evaluated where culture appears to have played a crucial and negative role. In two of them I was directly involved.
The situation I will describe here is similar to the earlier Russian language example, but the issue was not tone or pitch of speaking but rather communication style. Five months ago, the chief-of-surgery of a large California hospital attended a lecture at the School of International Studies where I teach. The subject of the talk was why international and domestic intercultural communication issues should be seen as two sides of the same problem. As part of his presentation, the speaker contrasted two of the most common communicative styles-linear versus circular-which can also be characterized as direct versus indirect.
After the talk, the surgeon came up to me looking stunned. He said he finally was beginning to understand, at least partially, what had been going wrong in his interaction with two doctors in his unit. He was responsible for supervising two foreign-born residency interns who had excellent medical training abroad, quite good English-language skills, and who had been doing competent surgical rounds for almost a year. Yet he was thinking of not renewing their residency with him because of his difficulty in getting them to, as he put it, "be open and frank with him in post-operative reviews when discussing complicated cases or cases with less than optimum results." The harder he pressed for suggestions and criticism, the more they seemed to resist. Over the next couple of weeks the physician and I explored why, from the residents' standpoint, he seemed to be asking them to criticize either him or themselves. Moreover, they were restrained by notions of hierarchy, face-saving, and respect for age from engaging in the kind of freewheeling, open, direct public discussion with which he felt most comfortable.
Once he realized that they were not being evasive and recalcitrant, but only using an indirect, almost circular style of communication, he decided to change his evaluation approach and found that the results were eventually quite satisfactory for both sides. I have no idea to this day whether the two physicians knew how close they had come to having their careers damaged due to cultural and not technical incompetence! And, if they had been terminated, they would probably have had difficulty understanding the basis of the action even after they had the negative evaluation documents in their hands because they lacked the frame of reference to see it from the American chief surgeon's standpoint. From their cultural viewpoint they had done nothing wrong other than protect their immediate superior and act respectfully as their cultures had taught them.
The next case is a bit more obvious, but still instructive. A newly appointed American program manager for a Spanish affiliate company in Madrid wanted to motivate candidates for a recently created comptroller position. He announced, over the objections of his local advisors, that he wanted to promote from within, and told the top three candidates that he would observe them for six months and then award the job to the best employee. This type of open competition is an anathema to most Spaniards and the results were predictably unhappy. One candidate resigned from the company immediately rather than participate in "a contest" and, at the end of the six months, the employee who was not chosen for the position also resigned. In six months the American manager had lost two of his three most competent employees. This type of individualistic motivational mindset often collides when encountering a society that is more collectively oriented. The American manager should have known, he was even told that it was not a good idea by his local secretary, but he forged forward and failed.
The final case is one that reflects the shift from phone and face-to-face communication channels to less affective fax and email. Increasingly, problems are arising when people from different cultures attempt to use these forms of communication because these technologies offer no other proxemic, paralinguistic, or language cues (such as tone or pitch) to rely upon to make meaning or convey nuance. Trust me, irony, jest, and many types of puns and word play do not translate well on a computer screen.
Sometimes simple requests can be culturally misunderstood or misinterpreted. For example, for many years a friend of mine was the president of a publishing firm that specialized in intercultural books and was staffed by people who had lived and worked abroad for years. Nevertheless, one day a fax came from a Japanese wholesaler with whom the press had just concluded a general agreement for them to be their representative in Japan. The Americans had been expecting a letter regarding shipment dates and volume of titles, etc. What they got was a fax about a half a page long that talked generally about the Japanese being delighted at the new relationship and how they were looking forward to doing business, but it was rather vague on details.
About a half an hour later, a fax came from a Scandinavian company who stood in a similar relationship to the press, and their order ran seven single-spaced pages and spelled out their understanding of the terms and conditions of their mutual business in extraordinary detail. It was written in rather flat prose and was a bit difficult to read. The reaction of the staff was "Boy, the Japanese are going to be a sweethearts to deal with and the European organization is going to be a bit of a pain." Of course, over time the opposite happened. Given the direct and unambiguous orders of the Scandinavians, the filling and negotiating of orders was done efficiently and quickly, while communication on the Japanese side was often ambiguous, incomplete, or varied from previous understandings-the euphemism that came to typify their interactions was "politely protracted."
In all of these examples, cultural norms and expectations were different and resulted in less than optimum performance in terms of accomplishing their respective goals. It seems to me that understanding and compensating for the cultural dimension in doing international business or engineering projects is not a frill. Effective international team building, collaborative research, and project management requires the administrators and staff involved be aware of not only the potential for such culturally based miscues but the behavioral, attitudinal, and psychological sources of such issues.
This emphatically does not necessarily mean that students of the sciences or project professionals need to be area experts in all cultures and nationalities represented in their study or work groups. It does mean that they do need to have a reasonable understanding of culture-general behavioral patterns and how these might play out in a culturally mixed group. This presupposes some knowledge of intercultural communication theory and analytical skills, including an ability to recognize cultural clashes and intercultural tensions for what they are: culturally based issues as opposed to matters of personality. As I tell my students going overseas, when they run into a problem, "Assume it is a cultural issue and not personal unless you know otherwise." There are few US-American schools that systematically offer even this basic intercultural data to its students, even though it is precisely the kind of training they will require to achieve intercultural competence. One can learn it the easy way, as part of one's undergraduate science training, or the hard way, perhaps as a member of an international work team that is united by technological expertise and project goals and divided by almost everything else.
Such training emphatically does not mean stereotyping, but rather being aware of "central tendencies" in different cultures. While it is axiomatic that not all members of any society exhibit all the traits or hold all the values of the society, it is still true that core beliefs and behavior will frequently separate cultural groups from another as a whole. This is true even in cases where there is considerable overlap such as Germany and Austria, or Australia and New Zealand, or closer to home, the United States and Canada. The basis of these differences have been extensively catalogued and documented over the last 15 years by Geert Hofstede and Charles Hampden-Turner and applied to international business contexts by Fons Trompenaars among others. All of these experts agree that under most multi-cultural circumstances there will be a tension between at least a couple of central values not shared by all the participants.
The usual list of culture general analytical categories includes such contrast sets as universalism versus particularism, analysis versus integration, individualism versus collectivism, inner-directed versus outer-directed orientations, time-as-a-sequence versus time-as-synchronization, achieved status versus ascribed status, and equality versus hierarchy. Of course, many of these tensions between values also exist within cultures. However, when they arise within organizations which themselves have a Corporate Culture, the mixture of behaviors and motivations as people from different orientations interact can become volatile.
So how can American educational institutions prepare their students to reduce and even harness these tensions, particularly within a highly scientific context where teamwork and project harmony is rather central to success? I offer six suggestions.
First, all disciplines and professionals should somehow acknowledge and address the issue of cultural variation and intercultural communication. In other words, give some overt and serious attention to culture as an important aspect of human existence. Students should be cautioned about and have some prior knowledge of why cultural factors are likely to have some impact. They should be aware that interpersonal and intercultural adjustment issues can arise whenever individuals, no matter how highly trained technically, interact with others from different backgrounds.
This may be a hard-sell to many American undergraduates. My experience teaching cross-cultural training for 30 years has been that the majority are, at least initially, oblivious of themselves as cultural beings, claim that everyone is essentially the same and cultural differences are all superficial, or claim that they to not even have a culture because, as Americans, "they are all unique and independent!" They think that what they do is "normal" and variations from these practices are aberrations, inferior, or both. Like the majority of their classmates, I doubt that the undergraduate science students view intercultural variation as a positive and possibly synergistic force. They probably do not think about it at all, because they may assume that it is irrelevant to the theory and practice of science.
Second, students should be advised why conflicts caused by cultural patterns are likely to be accompanied by some strong emotions and reactions and can become "hot button" issues if they are unacknowledged or remain unresolved. Culture is as much a matter of the heart as it is the head.
Third, appropriate intercultural training should be provided to anyone who is likely to be doing research cross-culturally. Of course, in today's world that means nearly everyone. This includes international students who are coming to our universities for scientific training, as well as all US students who are going overseas for academic study, internships, or job placements.
Fourth, structure student academic reward systems to encompass evaluative procedures relating to intercultural skills. This can include, among other things, linguistic competence, cross-cultural conflict resolution skills, successful study abroad, demonstrable positive performance in domestic multi-cultural classrooms, study teams, and work/internship settings. All of these activities should be accompanied by a growing awareness and understanding of the role culture plays in human interaction.
Fifth, recognize that due to ever-increasing domestic diversity within America, even STEM students who never leave the US will likely encounter cultural challenges relating to domestic diversity that can be as complex and disconcerting as those found across borders. This variety is almost surely going to increase the potential for unintentional miscues and sensitivity to cultural issues. Faculty and institutions should be aware that the same kind of intercultural training normally provided for student study abroad and corporate overseas assignments is likely to be effective in dealing with domestic diversity as well.
Sixth, however your organizations decide to approach curricular reform and alter pedagogy, it will be necessary to meticulously evaluate the impact of such changes at every stage, perhaps along the lines of the Assessment of Student Learning Abroad Project, which is currently underway led by Georgetown University. In the present difficult financial climate, all programs must be prepared to justify the costs and detail the benefits of any instructional change. I know the PKAL is working closely with the Forum for International Education on such evaluation issues.
Implementing such changes are likely to be difficult. Thomas L. Friedman, in his The Lexus and the Olive Tree, a very interesting view of globalization, quotes James Suroweiecki, a business columnist: "Most people prefer some measure of security about the future to a life lived in almost constant uncertaintyŠ We are not forced to re-create our relationships with those closest to us on a regular basis. And yet that's precisely whatŠis necessary to prosper [today] (p. 10)." I suspect that this process will apply on the many occasions when we come into contact with individuals from other cultures in the course of conducting scientific research and teaching science world-wide, particularly when those cultures are significantly different from our own.
That means that cultural dimensions are likely to become more important to us rather than being diminished as the pace of internationalism increases.
The mindset of science has produced some of the most important discoveries humankind has ever dreamed of, some of which were in the realm of science fiction only a decade ago. For example, the Human Genome project has unlocked the biochemical template of life for our species. This is what science is best at: technical solutions to fiendishly complex problems approached with rigor and pursued meticulously. Still, embedded within those humans practicing science is that other type of cultural mindset that is largely independent of the scientific system but is just as integral to its practice.
So, we started this exploration with the title "Culture in Technology vs. the Culture of Technology" and I must admit that I think that the title should be revised because the "versus" seems to imply some kind of bi-polar distinction or irreconcilable opposites. This is demonstrably untrue. Science is done by human beings and therefore is inextricable from general human activity, characterized by its Western, Enlightenment-derived, rational and philosophical commitment to the pursuit of knowledge of the physical world by experimental methods. It is a special way humans make sense out of the physical world in which we live.
Culture performs a similar function, but its approach is much broader, varied, idiosyncratic, and far less systematic. But make no mistake, culture universally forms an important part of our world-view and influences how we think and behave. That is why it matters that we see these two mind-sets not as contesting ideological positions, but as mutually contributory components.
So let us celebrate equally the astonishing triumph of science and the multiplicity of cultures that contribute to its vigor, while acknowledging that the products of science will inevitably bring about further global cultural change. Even the most detached and isolated scientist may be working on creating processes or products that have the potential to significantly alter how human beings work, live, and think.
That is an awesome responsibility. And unless we always want to be perpetually dealing with unintended consequences, we should remember that science and culture are both learned behaviors and neither are natural or innate. It will behoove us to spend at least some time and effort to make sure our students are becoming versed in the varieties of human cultural expression as we simultaneously teach them the theory and content of our various specialties.
In the long run, success will come to those talented individuals and institutions that can balance these twin mind-sets of science and culture. Faculty leaders will need to possess an appreciation and understanding of both. Institutions would be advised to develop and implement a curriculum that places an appropriate emphasis on both the "soft science" of human culture and the "hard science" of technical disciplines. Doing so will surely contribute to the globalization of science, while at the same time developing the cultural competency necessary for our students to prosper in any professional setting.
The result will be students who are, to use a phrase from evolutionary theory, pre-adapted to function effectively and efficiently in an increasingly diverse world. All our organizations and institutions have to do now is figure how exactly how that will be accomplished. There is a lot of work to do.