When technology meets culture
by: Asst Prof Lim Sun Su
Cultural and social factors existing in different countries result in technology being used in somewhat different ways.
Take the case of Singapore and China. New information-communication technologies (ICT) such as computer and mobile phones tend to encourage privacy as the typical Singapore family is able to afford several pieces of the same technology and place them in individual rooms. As a result, traditional social family activities such as television viewing are becoming increasingly private and solitary.
In contrast, the smaller and comparatively less affluent one-child middle-class Chinese family shares ICT in common areas such as the living room. The success-oriented Chinese culture also leads to parents placing ICT in their own room to allow supervision over their children’s usage in ICT. Hence, television viewing remains largely a family activity in China and so does Internet surfing.
Asst Prof Lim Sun Sun, Department of Communications and New Media (Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences), has been investigating how cultural values affect the nature of technology adoption in China, Singapore and South Korea, and the social impacts of technology. She conducted ethnographic interviews with children and parents in middle-class families, 20 each in China and South Korea, eight in Singapore.
Interestingly, her findings also reveal how ICT can help to improve intra-family communication in a high-contextual Asian society where the young are not encouraged to talk and question the elder. The content of television and the Internet is found to serve as common topic of interaction for family. Computer-mediated communication systems such as the Short Message Service (SMS) also help to erode communication barriers when family members find it difficult to broach awkward topics face-to-face.
IMPOSING CONTROL: In this room in Shanghai, the computer and television are both placed in the parent’s bedroom so that the child does not enjoy unrestricted access to them.
Despite its usefulness, technology remains a double-edged sword. Excessive net surfing and plugging onto a MP3 player the whole day impede communication. In a strikingly unhealthy practice, the lack of sibling companionship in China’s one-child family has led to some parents using ICT as a substitute for companionship, allowing their “little emperors” to spend more time on television or on the Internet.
Asst Prof Lim however noted that Asian parents do impose some form of control over their children’s ICT use, and children themselves also demonstrated self-restraint, reflecting their concern on academic success. “People have been fearful of moral hazards such as people spending less time with each other and eroding of family ties since the days of telephone and radio. And today, the fears are still there. But we are not dummies, we don’t allow technology to have autonomy,” she added.
But managing the needs of ICT and its “moral hazards” is a tough balancing act. For instance, South Korean parents are concerned about excessive use of ICT, but they also recognise that in a technology-driven society like theirs, their children cannot be deprived of exposure to ICT. Hence as ICT proliferates into the Asian families, it is important to continue the study of social impact of technology. “We need to understand how technology is being used by the family, and whether they are able to manage moral hazards of technology, while reaping the benefits. It would help policy-makers if they are aware of parental concerns about the adverse effects of ICT, especially when the industry is promoting a new technology,” said Asst Prof Lim.
MEDIA MAP: A mind map drawn by a 13 year-old South Korean boy, describing how he uses ICT to communicate with family members, schoolmates, relatives, and acquaintances.
To carry the research into the next level, she is now embarking on a related-research direction into how the family setting influences the fostering and transmission of media literacy skills. Asst Prof Lim is a member of the Internet and Media Advisory Committee which advises the Media Development Authority on issues relating to new media literacy and regulation.