Courtesy of I-Hwa Cheng / New York Times

An event organized by a fact-checking group to help people spot and report suspected fake news, in Taipei, Taiwan on Dec. 21, 2019. As Taiwan gears up for a major election this week, officials and researchers worry that China is experimenting with social media manipulation to sway the vote. (I-Hwa Cheng/The New York Times)

January 22, 2020

No, Digital Media Has Not Made Culture More Accessible

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As I flew back home to Taiwan for winter break, an eerie sense of disconnection emerged and lingered for the whole month. It wasn’t because I was jetlagged and lost all my streaks on Snapchat after my 15-hour flight. And no, it wasn’t just due to the state of unknown before the presidential election in Taiwan, but that’s a topic for another time. It was the sense of alienation due to the lack of access and exposure to information and the inability to participate in discourse framed by the Anglophone world while in Taiwan.

Perhaps it was the unique position of Taiwan that sits between the global North and the global South, and between the developed and the developing, that made me aware of the digital divide on a global scale. Technological determinism — the notion that technology is the primary driver of social and cultural change — has long blinded us to the potential plight of digital technology. When it comes to technological advancement, capitalism and colonialism (which I argue are inseparable social constructs based on commodification) inevitably come into play. Despite emerging as a powerhouse in the laptop industry through imitation and reverse-engineering, Taiwan, like most postcolonial countries, still struggles to challenge the global hierarchy of designing and manufacturing: Silicon Valley designs, the rest of the world manufactures.

Such hierarchy emphasizes the knowledge and technology gap. Despite the notion of ethereality commonly associated with the cloud, digital technology is fundamentally rooted in materiality. As such, just like its predecessors, inequalities are still inevitable consequences of its development. In the postcolonial context in which such hierarchy exists, the digital divide persists regardless of the state of development. As one divide closes, another will always open up with the advancement in hardware, software, speed of connection. In this regard, in contrast to the countercultural — also known as hippie — celebration of small-scale technologies as tools for the transcendence of human consciousness, digital technology doesn’t seem to realize the ideal of a non-hierarchical society. I’m not saying it never will, but it hasn’t.

If digital technology acts as an engine of inequality, digital media is the catalyst to accelerate its operations. While digital media has brought accessibility, mobility and ubiquity into our everyday practice of technology, this is contingent upon stable access to the Internet and the ability to comprehend information framed by the Anglophone world. Digital media’s unique characteristics pose an ethical conundrum, as it acts as both an infrastructure of common good for public engagement and as platforms designed for the profit optimization. Increasingly, these benefits can only be leveraged by the haves but not the have-nots. For the have-nots that either live in the global South or are marginalized in the global North, their attention is subjected to the data-driven and profit-driven approach of curation.

The curatorial culture in the new media landscape is a perfect example of this phenomenon. By learning our behavioral patterns in the digital sphere, tech companies, namely Google and Facebook, largely decide what information we absorb to maximize their profit. These tech giants maintain the unregulated power to manipulate the content we’re exposed to. For the have-nots, their thoughts and behaviors are thus subjected to commodification by the omnipresent mediums.

I argue that this is a new form of colonialism that treats data as the new territory to be explored. The knowledge we acquire fundamentally shapes the scope and the trajectory of our discourse on culture, and I believe a keen sense of awareness is crucial to the capacity to critique and inform our culture. For many, amid the saturation of digital media through which the majority of information exchanges are mediated for profit, they’re manipulated to be uninformed and uncritical.

China is an exception to these power relations, as the profit of the tech compa
nies that operate the platforms is directly tied to the interest of the state. As such, the Chinese government has weaponized digital media to initiate cyberattacks on Taiwan. Fortunately, despite the inundation of misinformation, Taiwan still made the informed decision to re-elect Tsai Ing-wen LL.M. ’80 in January, strengthening the nation’s democracy against all odds. But still, the monopoly of platforms remains unregulated. How we’re going to redefine the notion of privacy and consent in order to establish a new ethical order. What exactly are we going to do? I don’t know. At least, I don’t know yet. Perhaps I’m coming to the States, jetlagged and Snapchat streak-less, to find the answer.

Stephen Yang is a sophomore in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. Rewiring Technoculture runs alternate Mondays this semester.