Pensum / Syllabus: “FutureWorld/s?: Cultural Homogeneity / Hybridity / Diversity Online”

Dr. Charles Ess, Visiting Professor


Office: 4.12

Phone: 3816 8963 / Mobile: 2246 0635



[See also:

Course outline

References, resources]

Student work:

Elizabeth Würtz


Course description

General Question: How far may CMC technologies foster and/or hinder cross-cultural communication – especially those forms of cross-cultural communication that intend to preserve and foster the cultural values and communicative preferences that define individual cultures (in a cultural pluralism), rather than either simply overriding all such values and preferences for the sake of a single defining set (homogenization – “McWorld”) or collapsing into mere fragmentation and opposition (balkanization)?

This general question addresses both (1) (utopian) humanistic and (2) pragmatic, design-oriented interests.

1. We will examine the question, As our societies move more and more into online environments – what is our global future as citizens in a “un/wired world,” i.e., a world in which much of communication will take place via CMC technologies?

Specifically, between the oppositions of utopian and dystopian possibilities – are middle grounds possible that will avoid both homogenization and mere fragmentation?

2. A central theme of the course will be to learn as much as possible – from both previous praxis and theory – that can be applied to how we communicate online, including for commercial purposes.

Specifically, there will be several opportunities for students – either individually and/or in groups – to apply what they’ve learned to design projects (web pages, etc.) that will serve as case-studies for our common discussion and criticism.

[These questions further entail a cluster of related / underlying / dependent questions – questions that further help highlight the multiple disciplines that must be brought to bear on our work:

How can we talk about the values and preferences of people who shape and are shaped by different cultures (meaning?) – for both humanistic and commercial reasons – without falling into stereotypes and stereotyping?

[sociology / ethnography / philosophy ]

Humanists – since at least the ancient Stoics, if not since the beginning of philosophy in the Western world (with Thales, ca. 7th ct. B.C.E.) – have concerned themselves with the image of a cosmopolis (“world-city”) whose inhabitants (cosmo-politans – “world-citizens”) necessarily moved beyond the values and preferences of a specific culture (and the risk of ethnocentrism) to beliefs and values that could be ostensibly universally shared by all human beings qua human.

Can / will the Internet and the World Wide Web foster the sorts of communication online that will, as enthusiasts promise, issue in an “electronic global village,” i.e., an online cosmopolis that realizes ancient (Western) visions of universally shared values and beliefs defining a common humanity?

[history of philosophy / sociology / ethnography / communication]

Traders and evangelists at all times have recognized the importance of understanding “the Other” – if only to more successfully (a) sell / negotiate and/or (b) convince/convert “the Other” into accepting a religious system (Buddhism, Christianity, Islam).

While traders may not intend to colonialize “the Other” in the way that evangelists seek to do – do business-oriented ways of communicating with “the Other,” including advertising and related forms online, nonetheless run the risk of imposing a given set of cultural values and communicative preferences – in a kind of “computer-mediated colonization”?

Alternatively: by recognizing the fundamental values and communicative preferences that define specific cultures – can we develop forms of ethically responsible (indeed, humanistic) advertising and related forms of communication online that avoid such colonization?

[ethics / business ethics / cross-cultural communication / cultural studies]

While some technologists may like to believe that technologies are value-neutral – they are “only a tool” which intrinsically carry no ethical value (“it just depends on how you use it”) – are our technologies, including the technologies of CMC indeed neutral?

And/or: do these technologies embed and/or foster specific cultural values and communicative preferences – such that their use on a global scale runs the risk of imposing such values and preferences in (again) a kind of “computer-mediated colonization”?

[philosophy of technology / political science / history]

How far do these technologies fail/succeed in communicating across the entire range of the dimensions of communication – including the multiple modes of non-verbal communication?

In particular, insofar as human beings remain intrinsically embodied human beings whose communication often involves more than simply “information” – how far do CMC technologies fail/succeed in communicating between such human/e beings, especially in order to communicate important emotions, establish trust, etc.?

[communication theory / culture-technology-communication studies]

Especially if we distinguish between

the more prevailing, utilitarian, business-oriented models (“user as potential convert / consumer”) and

more humanistic models of the purposes and techniques of such communication?

-- can we learn anything from

the current praxis and results of implementing CMC technologies across a range of diverse national/ethnic cultures, and/or

what is known regarding intercultural communication offline

in order to enhance online cross-cultural communication – for both utilitarian and humanistic purposes?

[cross-cultural communication / culture-technology-communication studies]


General Structure

As an intensive course, we will adopt some different pedagogies in the hopes that these will make the course more effective within its comparatively short time-frame.

(Morning) lecture/discussion/guided discussion - referatum

Especially at the beginning, morning sessions (9:00-12:00) will be devoted to lecture and discussion (including independent but guided group discussion) regarding assigned readings and case studies.

Following the first day, we will begin the following morning with a referat – prepared either by an individual or a group – that will summarize the important points of the previous day’s work for the class and serve as the springboard for our moving forward. (Especially at the beginning, I will work with the student/s responsible for the next day’s referat as part of the afternoon “humanities lab” as described below.)

Student response / participation / direction

This course involves an unusually ambitious set of goals: we need to engage an exceptional range of academic disciplines (ranging from philosophy, including ethics, to sociology, communication, and aesthetics), of technically-based and –oriented skills (design, etc.) – and of cultures, beginning with your own. Clearly, no single person can encompass all of these with any competence. The literally global aims of the course require us to work together to conjoin what each of us can contribute from our specific academic backgrounds, skills and interests, and cultural/communication experiences.

Hence, from the outset, I will be asking for your response and participation, especially drawing on you to provide the following:

Disciplinary perspectives: what you may know and/or can discover through research in a specific discipline familiar to you from previous study. [Philosophy, aesthetics, communication, and cultural studies will be especially important to us here.]

Poetic” perspectives/skills: poesis in Greek means “to create” – what we call ‘poetry’ is but one form of creation. Much of your work at IT-U is oriented towards learning the skills needed to create and/or produce something concrete. While a primary form of such poiesis in the academic setting takes the form of writing (see below) – I also hope that you will bring forward your particular skills and abilities to create other forms of communication that will help us express, explore, and critically evaluate central ideas and concepts.

[This will particularly include aesthetics and design skills.]

Cultural / communication skills, insights: all of us are members of one or more cultures – and all of us know how to communicate, in varying degrees at least, both within a specific cultural setting and across at least one important cultural difference. Your knowledge and experience, as both cultural ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ will be crucial to this course.

[As well, what we can learn from the disciplines of cultural studies, communication, and cross-cultural communication should be especially valuable.]

Suggestions for direction, resources. Finally, while I have developed a strong outline and structure for our work together – the course will be useful to you only as it addresses your particular interests. We can discuss – both individually and as a class – possible directions for the course that may better fulfill the course goals than what I’ve initially laid out below.

(Afternoon) “humanities lab”

Afternoon sessions (1:00-3:00) will be spent primarily in the format of a “humanities lab,” one modeled on the pedagogical practices of the natural sciences and architecture. In this more informal setting, we will undertake the following activities:

1. Initial responses / discussion. While I will constantly ask for your engagement and responses to the morning lecture/discussion – the lab time will give you a more extended opportunity to develop your responses to the material at hand. I will ask you to do so especially along the lines suggested above – i.e., in terms of your specific discipline(s), poetic skills and technical abilities, and experiences in culture and cross-cultural/communication.

2. Individual/group reading. Because there are many potentially interesting and important texts – some of which are difficult – we will experiment with reading periods in which individual and/or groups may focus on texts of their choosing. I will be available to answer questions, respond to your comments and suggestions, etc.

3. Commonplace book writing.

A Commonplace book is something like an intellectual/academic journal in which you keep important quotes from your reading – written out verbatim – as well as your own responses to these quotes. This is sometimes called “writing to learn” – because it’s clear that the kinesthetic act of writing out a text by hand engages the mind more carefully and extensively than reading alone. As well, by immediately writing down one’s responses to a text, you can sometimes capture important thoughts and ideas, and even begin to develop them in significant ways.

Thoughts that move the world come on doves’ feet,” Nietzsche said, meaning, I take it, that our most important thoughts come quietly and subtly – so much so, that they are often lost unless we attend carefully to articulating them as they occur to us.

4. Group development / presentation / critique of design projects and case-studies.

A. Many of our readings are chosen to serve as case-studies. At the same time, we cannot “cover” all of them in the morning sessions; as well, it will be useful and productive for both individuals and groups to focus on those case studies that seem most directly pertinent to your own interests.

Individual and groups will be asked to select a reading – or find an alternative reading, example, etc. – that they will then present to the class (in the fashion of a seminar). Your presentation should provide

(i) an outline of the important points, including careful attention to the important arguments, etc.

(ii) comments on how the case study connects with the other materials and ideas we have examined; and

(iii) any additional comments and criticisms you think are important.

In this way, your presentation of the case study will serve to teach it to the rest of us, thus expanding our collective understanding of the materials available to us.

Note as well that virtually all of the texts included in the “References, Suggested Readings” list may serve as the focus of such group/case-study discussion.

B. A primary focus in this course is on design of a “product” – e.g., a web page, etc. – that seeks to apply what we’ve learned in praxis in ways that are relevant to your interests and goals. You will be asked through the course to develop – both individually and in groups – such projects. At least some of the afternoon time can be devoted to the development of your projects.

C. Finally, we will use some of the afternoon time for “crits” (critiques), a practice in architectural education. Individuals and groups will present their project – including a project statement that articulates the goals and intentions of the project, along with the project itself. The rest of the class, as well as the instructor, will then offer – in a positive and constructive way – comments and criticisms intended to help improve the project in a future instantiation.