Home > Current issues in Education > Technology is a culture catalyst


By G. Balasubramanian

We are passing through a techno-cultural revolution. The impact of technology on individuals and societies, both at the intrinsic level and at the ephemeral level, has resulted in the modification and re-engineering of the thought processes, life patterns and the realms of cohabitation. The access, speed, efficiency and affordability of technology have facilitated its in-roads to several global corners redefining the parameters of production, service and consumption. New paradigms of consumerism are emerging edifying several asymmetric patterns in social relationships and the hierarchy of culture. Increasing dichotomies in the lateral and hierarchical cultural thoughts, restructuring experiential frames, mix and synthesis of cultural models and products beyond economic, social, historical and geographical contexts have been triggered by the continuous advent of technology. Thus, the cultural capital of the individuals, societies and nations are getting revamped. Brian carolan of Columbia University in his research paper on “Technology, schools and decentralization of culture” comments “Technology, therefore is not an element of unreal salvation and apocalyptic fantasy that is held at a distance Technology is simply a common cultural tool that does not exist in isolation from the social system. It intersects with numerous structural elements and its potency to alter the organization of social interaction must be considered.” The social scientists are finding it a Herculean task to interpret the emerging social and cultural structures.

Rightly John Von Neumann, Institute of Advanced studies, Princeton observes “The technology that is now developing and that will dominate the next decades seems to be in total conflict with traditional and, in the main, momentarily still valid geographical and political units and concepts. This is the maturing crisis of technology.” In his paper on scientifically-induced discontinuity with its entire past, Vector Vinge, (Mathematician) observes “The acceleration of technological progress has been central to the feature of this century. We are on the edge of change comparable to the rise of human life on earth.”

The process of Culture

Given the seriousness of the above statements, it may be worthwhile to examine how the individual and social cultures are being transformed by technology and what would be its consequent implications on the content and processes of educational systems.

Culture, Swidler (1998) defines. “as symbolic vehicles of meaning, including beliefs, ritual practices, art forms, and ceremonies as well as informal cultural practices such as language, gossip, stories and rituals of daily life.” The metamorphosis of culture over the centuries has been the metamorphosis of the relationship of the individual, the society with their knowledge content and its processes. Says Aldous Huxley in is article “Culture and the individual” (1963) “Between culture and the individual the relationship is, and always has been, strangely ambivalent. We are at once the beneficiaries of our culture and its victims.” He argues “Thanks to the realistic ideas handed down by culture, mankind has survived and in, certain fields progress. But thanks to the pernicious nonsense drummed into every individual in the course of his acculturation, mankind though surviving and progressing, has always been in trouble. History is the record, among other things, of the fantastic and generally fiendish tricks played upon itself by culture-maddened humanity. And the hideous game goes on.” In the instant context, the question is: whether technology will lead to new acculturation of mankind that addresses itself to unexplored domains of progress or will play a fiendish trick that will devastate the existing cultural capital?

Technology and the individual culture

The impact of technology on every individual member of the society will be both awesome and amazing. The criticality of the individual as a potential determinant of one’s own culture will throw open to more social challenges and the management of heterogeneity and ambivalence in cultural dynamics. Availability of virtual modes of experience, and multiple and parallel processing technologies tend to provide the individual aspirants of learning, the needed time and space for assimilation, processing and management. Management of a multi-window processing and communication at the global level from one central terminal has opened both synergy as well as diversification. Thus, the realms of time and space acquire newer meanings with the advent technology at the individual level. This will facilitate emergence of newer perceptions of words, meanings, concepts and actions. The constructed images playing the role of reality will shift the paradigm of experiences to cyber generated emotions and tensions. Thus, the context and perception of culture will acquire new significance. The social psychologists have to examine the relationship between “concepts and perceptions” in the technological context.

Says Jean Baudrillard, “As the metaphysical foundation on which our systems were built gets pulled from underneath our feet, the stability and fixity of grand narratives that have been conforming to so many of us leaves us, too. With it comes a need for new metaphors to describe the experience of living in postmodern times. It is in this context that we should look at the computer mediated communication as a potential source of empowerment in terms of giving us new ways of expression as well as interaction and at the same time provide us new metaphors to describe the quickly changing world where, as some have pointed out, future has already happened.” The individual’s perception of future having happened or happening at the present will be an anticipatory myth that would emerge in an impoverished stress-prone mind by the winglets of technology. Arguments that these fantasies will also usher in new inputs to creative domains of mind is a matter that is to be left to debate.

The conflict between the material and the digital, the race between them to acquire newer vistas of power, will seek fresh philosophical interpretations of time and space. The increasing dominance of networked space will vehemently oppose the proliferation of material dominance in human mind and activity. The individual will be in a continuous struggle of coping with redefined value systems of power and prosperity. The symbiosis between the cultural capital and the knowledge capital of the individual will raise questions on the economics of survival mechanisms and their sustenance. The dialogue on the horizons of reality and virtual, the powers of the Mind and Matter would attract serious attention of the philosophers and culture architects of several nations. To find answers for many of these questions, a global perspective would be necessary rather than the national priorities.

The tangible space available for corporate communication between the individuals and groups would result in the emergence of extended virtual communities. The individual culture will get reengineered by virtual community cultures. Will the evolving scenario pose a potential threat to human survival? Henry Kissinger. Former National Security Adviser, USA writes in his book “Years of Upheaval” (1982), “the fact that the survival of our civilization must be entrusted to a technology so out of scale with our experience and with our capacity to grasp its implications.”

In the above scenario, the consciousness of the individual will be under a great stress revalidating its role-play both in isolation as well as in context. The in-depth understanding of the extended meanings of Time and Space, Mind and Matter will enable questioning of several established norms, traditions, and relationships. The individual consciousness would tend to play a pro-active role in its interplay with the social milieu and social consciousness. All these issues again lead to the question: Whether the advent technology will facilitate the blossoming of a new culture or will make the mankind victims of a culture born out of their own innovations? Whether future has happened or is now or is waiting?

Technology and social culture

The culture of a society is not a mere algebraic sum of the culture its individual constituents. More to its vector addition lay the synthesis of thoughts emerging out of the multifaceted interaction of the several individual components. The legacy and content of its heritage, the geographical dimensions, the economic variations, the political thought processes, the security perspectives and many other relevant issues contribute to the synthesis of the dominant social culture. The conflict between the individual and social cultures of any set-up is but a natural reflection of the authority and maturity of the individual in the total context. The correlation between the two varies at every single individual level. Reflecting on this relationship, Aldous Huxley points out, “Thanks to culture, we are the heirs of a vast accumulation of knowledge, to a priceless treasure of logical and scientific method, to thousands upon thousands of useful pieces of technological and organizational know-how. But the human mind-body possesses other sources of information makes use of other type of reasoning, is gifted with an intrinsic wisdom that is independent of cultural conditioning.” However, the dominance of the later over the former is always a record of history.

The pace and facet of technology

The impact of technological processes both on the individual and the social mind is more than evidence. The technological interventions of yesteryears were slow and steady. They percolated into the social milieu at reduced speeds, enabling a reasonable period for the people to understand and appreciate its impact on themselves and their native society. The recent trends of technological growth indicate the speed with which these changes impact the society. Thanks to the extended connectivity and access, the information of the technological changes permeates into the knowledge fields of societies much in advance of their hardware. The enhanced levels of productivity of the hardware, and aggressive marketing initiatives and strategies usher in products in mind-boggling time capsules.

The tendency of the market to create a need in the minds of the consumers for their products is an enabling factor for its proliferation. The increased levels of the society to consume information and products have an effect on their body-mind behaviour, consequently on their culture. This helps the producer markets to carve a niche for themselves in the consumer markets. This urges the developed nations to seek a political-economic-cultural dominance over the lesser gods, just to keep their markets alive. The proliferation of cultural inputs of the market dominant over the consumer nations is thus a case in the point. Given the connectivity, any society that seeks to be relevant to the global powerbase, would yield itself to this phenomenon in their acceptable pace. Thus, technology impacts all societies and their constituent layers.

The future of culture

The cultural divide within a given society due to differential pace of technology dynamics and resultant knowledge manifestation and management, is an issue which each society is grappling with. The challenges to the roots of their native beliefs, traditions, and life styles are causing not mere concerns, but are demanding an urgency to preserve them lest they are extinguished. Serious changes in “perceptions” of people of a society seek development strong defensive mechanisms from social psychologists. Is there a cause for pessimism? In the translation of the article “Is Electronic Acceleration of cultural Dynamics the Death of Aesthetics?” from the book (German) Lehrstuhl fur Aesthetic (1996), Margaret Berki points out “If we are dead people at call, if the mankind only strives for the inevitable end of the history of nature the we can only preserve our dignity through self-sacrifice. If it were true that the collapse of our conventional orientation in the world is the effect of electronic acceleration then predictions of bygone days would not have been made because the phenomenon of accelerations did not yet exist. However pessimistic predictions were always made, long before the beginning of the electronic age therefore they cannot be the result of a completely new situation.”

The struggle for innovation and new meanings go on eternally, given the nature of Mind, be it with or without technology. The issue is: how does the individual and society cope with them. As William James describing the waking consciousness of the human mind says “No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these forms of consciousness disregarded.”

How far does technology affect the cultural systems and how long would this go on? How far can we monitor these changes and make them as desirable to us? Possibly the observations of Prof. J.L. Lemke of Brooklyn college, Brooklyn, New York in his article “Discourse, Dynamics and Social Change” are quite meaningful “ We are only beginning to realize that we are not Lords of Creation, but the most expendable, vulnerable, dependent, recent extension of a far older, non-human planetary eco-system, and that our survival depends on enhancing, not exploiting, a system which takes no cognizance of our interests and values, except in so far as they long ago adopted to its realities. We are also only beginning to realize that we do not make history, and culture, exactly as we please, but only within the limits of a vaster, trans-human system, whom we cannot in principle observe or control.”

An educational response

How will the educational systems respond to this dynamic both at the individual level and the social level? Education, as the most appropriate investment of any society for its future hold, will have to meaningfully but cautiously respond to this powerful impact. Educational systems have as much responsibility to hold the heritage of the past as they have to accommodate the designs of the future. It has an accelerating as well as a moderating role. While discharging the onerous responsibility of acting as a carrier of the culture of the past to the future through generations, the educational systems simultaneously have to usher in the opportunity for the manifestation of the dreams of the present as a vibrant alternative. Technology can act as an enabler of this critical role in the educational context. Technology need not be seen as a potential threat to the cultural dynamics, but as a harmonizer of the Matter and the Mind. As Aldous Huxely puts it “Reality is a continuum, a fathomlessly mysterious and infinite something, whose outward aspect is what we call Matter, and whose inwardness is what we call Mind.” Education has, in the coming years, this purpose to serve.


1. Culture and Individual – Aldous Huxley (1963)

2. Is electronic Acceleration of cultural Dynamics the Death of Aesthetics? - Lehrstuhl for Asthetik (1996)

3. Learning Technology, Constructing Culture – Knut H. Sorensen Centre of Technology and Society, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Dragvoll, Norway

4. Evolution of the social contract- Skyrms, Brian (1996), University Press, New York

5. Cultural Formations in the Age of Internet – Jaishree K. Odin (1997)

6. Technology, Schools and the Decentralization of Culture – Brian Carolan, Teacher’s College, Columbia University

7. Popular culture and high culture: An analysis and evaluation of taste – H. Gans (1999), Basic Books, New York

8. Culture and Social Action – A. Swidler (1998), The New American cultural Sociology- Cambridge university Press, Cambridge

9. Dynamics of cultural change: Towards A Unified Evolutionary Modeling Framework- Timothy Kohler, External Professor, Washington State University

10. The Extended Mind Model of the Origin of Language and Culture –Robert K. Lagan, Department of Physics, University of Toronto, Canada

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