13 April 2011

Technology in Exile

I revised the background, significance, and literature review section of my project proposal.  Here's what it says now:

We live in the midst of a digital renaissance, reflected in swift technological advances and cultural revolution.  Often, those living in the United States have nearly constant access to technological resources, especially the internet.  Developing nations like India, however, have significantly limited access by comparison (Fink and Kenny 20).  The Tibetan community living in exile in McLeod Ganj, India is a contradiction--residents boast a high level of digital literacy but usually lack computers, particularly in personal settings like the home.  The high level of digital literacy in the Tibetan community is a phenomenon that academia is just beginning to understand, one that links the digital natives in India to the digitally literate around the world and challenges the Tibetans who are seeking to preserve their culture as they live in a foreign land.

Previous scholarship regarding digital culture do not adequately address the unique situation in Dharamsala, India.  Though scholars such as Paul Levinson (2009) and Charlie Gere (2002) have studied the implications of the digital renaissance in first world countries, that which involves developing countries has focused on the digital divide between nations.  Now, due to the advances of mobile technology, the phenomenon of developing countries "digitally leapfrogging" developed nations displaces the notion of digital divide (Fink and Kenny 15).  The result is a gap in scholarship concerning digitally literate communities without prime access to technology, especially for the Tibetans' unique exiled location in India.  The digital renaissance is global in its effects, largely because global communication is easier than ever.  In addition, the swiftly evolving nature of digital culture necessitates frequent updates as information becomes outdated.  Therefore, current scholarship concerning digital literacy must extend beyond national borders just as its subject matter does.

Digital literacy is a hallmark of the rising generation worldwide.  "It has long been recognised [sic] that literacy, and a literate population, are keys not only to economic development but also to personal achievement and social well being everywhere . . . but only recently have we begun to understand the importance of 'beyond literacy' developments such as information literacy, digital literacy, and complementary literacies" (Ameen and Gorman 100).  Digital literacy requires, at its foundation, proficiency with technological hardware and basic internet functions such as navigating browsers, websites, and search engines.  Beyond these, the digitally literate are comfortable with unfamiliar programs, online collaboration, and multi-tasking.  They expect high-speed internet connections and immediate results.  Further, "the evolution of media has so integrated the modes of communication and transportation as to make us expect any device that does the first to be able just as easily to do the second" (Levinson 229).  This is related to "the annihilation of physical distance and the dissolution of material reality by virtual or telecommunication technologies" that is already prevalent and threatens to become increasingly so (Gere 11).  With mobile internet devices, the wealth of online information is available anywhere, and online information and products are often free.  One Tibetan man noted that "with the coming of the computer and internet we can do lots of things now, we can do anything" (Jinpa).  For the digitally literate youth in Dharamsala, digital literacy is certainly present, though it is likely to be different from other digital natives as a result of the unique Tibetan circumstances.

Many Tibetans in India are actively involved in the digital renaissance, but its effects on Tibetan cultural preservation are yet to be understood.  The Dalai Lama has Twitter, the Tibetan Children's Village school has a Facebook group, and Dharamsala has a wireless mesh that provides internet for the entire city (Cardon "Internet").  Indian government policies encourage information technology to foster the digital paradigm (Ameen and Gorman 99).  Yet in 2003, there was a 70-fold difference in access rates between US and Indian households (Fink and Kenny 20).  Nevertheless, the mark of the digital renaissance results in marked changes in the Tibetan community as it does worldwide.  As instant global communication fosters a single "new culture for [Tibetans and] for everyone . . . [since] we are getting so much mixed" the previous distinctions between cultures become less clear (Jinpa).  As one researcher found, "Tibetan refugees are members of a population whose culture and language are in danger of being subsumed by dominant culture and language" in the digital age (Tillberg).  Thus, for the Tibetans whose primary goal is cultural preservation, the global nature of the digital renaissance could pose a threat.  Adopting a global identity necessitates losing the unique Tibetan culture to some degree.  However, "as a culture is neither as new as it might appear, nor is its development ultimately determined by technological advances, [it] would be more accurate to suggest that digital technology is a product of digital culture" (Gere 13).  In fact, literacy itself is associated with a "unifying cultural heritage."  "The idea of intellectual, and to some extent political, universalism is historically and substantively linked with literate culture" (Goody 50).  Technology, then, so closely tied to civilization and progress, is simply the culmination of a need for that technology within the culture itself.  In this instance, digital literacy is functional as an outlet for society's needs and an aid, not a detriment, to cultural preservation while facilitating progress into modernity.  It is possible that "the Internet and multimedia technology may present both direct conflict with traditional values for such a population, as well as opportunity to protect and promote use of an endangered language and culture" (Tillberg).  With the digital renaissance comes the question of its relationship to Tibetan cultural preservation, and the constant advances in technology only serve to make this question more pressing.

"Ultimately," says one Tibetan man, "we need to preserve our identity" (Jinpa).  With 5-6 million Tibetans, the entire heritage and culture is at risk.  The Tibetans boast a unique digital literacy to match their unique political and social position, though the nature and degree of digital literacy in a community that lacks the level of access available in the West is still in question.  Further, and more crucially, the question of survival of Tibetan culture is magnified by and intimately related to the modern digital renaissance, a relationship that is yet to be understood.  For thousands of exiled Tibetans, digital culture is a potent feature of modern life and a notable consideration in the preservation of traditional culture.

I have come a long way over this semester, though my roots are certainly still present in the final product.  Despite all my work, though, I realized in class today that I have a lot of necessary revisions in my project design even though I've turned it in.  Isn't that the story of life, anyway?  My project will never be perfectly prepared, and at this point I think all there is left is to do it!

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