Little Italy, Wide World
by Marco Farinelli
"Class of 1992. Please stand up," boomed a voice in an electric megaphone. On Monday, May 18th, I stood, proud, listening to "The Land of the Free" at Franklin Field on the University of Pennsylvania campus. It was the day of my graduation. Months later, in the Italian army, I was experiencing a similar devotion as I watched the hoisting of the Italian flag, to the notes of "Fratelli d'Italia." Throughout my academic life I have constantly tried to think globally, and to nourish this international perspective. (1) However, right after my University experience, I realized how important it was for me to retrace my Italian roots. Nowadays, when I sort my electronic correspondence from a lonely attic here in Rome, I find myself thinking in English.
High cultural walls prevent the emergence of a truly global form of communication, and by cultural I am referring to more than just barriers of language: "Culture consists of all distinctive, spiritual and material, intellectual and emotional features which characterize a society or social group." (2)
In a recent book, Global networks: Computers and International Communication, Jan Walls and Iroshi Ishii introduce cultural issues in globalizing networks. Assuming a working language to be shared, Jan Walls defines cultural obstacles to computer-mediated communication (CMC) by individuals of distinct language-culture systems as, "different visions or expectations as to how elements should relate to one another." Likewise, Hiroshi Ishii states that, "most communications difficulties come from cultural gaps among people." (3)
While modern telecommunications technology makes it easy to exchange messages across cultural as well as national boundaries without personal interaction (cross-cultural communication), the act of processing a message produced in one culture into another (inter-cultural communication) is not. As my friend Karen-Carla once put it: "Dang... this cross the ocean, multi cultural, electronic communication is complicated!" (4) Using my experience as a case study, and drawing from the available literature, this essay will attempt to illustrate how computer-mediated communication affects international relations.
Barriers to Internationalization of Communications
I studied and lived in the US for four and a half years (1987-92), at the University of Pennsylvania. It is no accident that I socialized with an international group, rather than with American scholars (with notable exceptions). Now, I can only assume that the effect which rooted traditions have on Europeans is a factor influencing the way we think, and consequently, our social behavior (note that in our example the "language variable" can almost be ruled-out).
In my travels in cyberspace, international relations have been the rule, not the exception. My experience as the only native Italian in the virtual neighborhood of the INFJ mailing list has proven that I could connect with people all over the world, especially Americans (being the majority of list members), at a deep level of understanding--as long as I have been willing to accept American English as the common language, and American culture as the prevailing one.
Does this mean that CMC enables international communications that would have never been possible otherwise? And if so, is that a positive or negative sociological transformation?
To continue with my University experience, what is maybe even more striking is that I have never had an intimate relationship with an American woman: we simply did not attract each other. Also, the whole idea of a date is still foreign to my courting habits. I have always felt these cultural barriers, especially with American women. Similar to my friendships while in US land, my love affairs have naturally tended towards a European pool. Yet, in the sociosphere of cyberspace, by relating to people through common interest (and values) and not by geographical proximity, I have come to share personal feelings and thoughts with cybergrrls, thereby overcoming that reciprocal barrier. In my experience, physical presence was actually irrelevant (if not counterproductive) for communications with Americans, something which, to an extent, was given back to me through CMC.
Professionally, my search for internationalism found expression in the Rough Guide to the Internet: Italy, I wrote for UK's top Internet magazine .net. With a mouse-click I got the assignment, with another click I delivered the article, which I completed through computer-mediated cooperative work with my editor Richard Longhurst. Had it not been for CMC, it would have been unlikely for me to be able to scribble that piece from my whereabouts in Rome, and know it was being distributed in UK's newsstands!(5) In my particular case, text-based CMC enables me to maintain a link with the acquired side of my personality, while living in Italy. Computer-mediated communications have supplemented and even substituted some of my territorial relations. Over time, this has lead to a feeling of indifference towards people around me, as well as to a sense of frustration, in a way similar to that described by Leszek Kolakowski's "unobtainable village," where the impossibility of acting at a global level can lead one to seek refuge in tradition, religion, or in one's own fatherland. (6) In the context, this could be interpreted as a reversible side-effect of Internet-based CMC, the closest form of effective world-wide communication we now have. Overall, the potential for truly global multicultural communications should be welcomed as a positive societal opportunity, as long as people respect each other's specific identities. In particular, the effort of non-native English speakers to master US-driven computer-mediated modes of communication should be recognized, and their diverse contributions perceived as a cultural enrichment. The Internet-community should realize it is in everyone's interest that for linguistic-cultural minorities to acquire the means to communicate world wide must not lead to a dilution of their national or ethnic identities. In summary, in order to lay the foundations for a truly global communications environment, people should bear in mind that cyberspace is not under any nation's jurisdiction--even if the majority of netizens nowadays carry a US passport.
Seen from the United States, Europe may seem united. Yet, circumscribing identities keep its nations divided and, even at a regional level, dialectal, ethnic, and religious traditional cultures prevent it from being a US of Europe. Notwithstanding François Mitterrand's last call for the need of a "European spirit," the Union remains a loose confederation of sovereign States lending their national sovereignty to this or that particular issue (Economic and Monetary Union, Western European security, common cultural policy, etc.). This selective approach has little to do with a shared sense of identity, but rather with convenience. There is no such thing as a soul-deep "European language-culture," just as I would not be understood by my neighbors in Esperanto, while I would be in Romanaccio (slang roman dialect). The irony is that the more the European Union attempts to suck national sovereignty away from its Member States, the more the shadow of nationalism risks to resurface. By projecting these issues into a futuristic scenario of globally-integrated communications, this disintegrating mechanism could well be triggered.
Risks and Opportunities of a Global Communications Environment
It can be argued that a major risk of a mismanaged growth of a market-led world wide information and communication society lies in the loss of local identity and tradition to the "global commons." The boundary-crossing nature of the Internet, adoption of English as lingua franca on the Net, US predominance in the multimedia industry, and penetration of the information and communication technology service-market by foreign multinationals have persuaded European nations of the threat of being denuded of their cultural heritage. Similarly, what happens between EU Member States, domestic authority restrictions are linked to a sense of national impotence, which could lead, ultimately, to an upsurge of nationalism.
Recent Franco-American "culture wars" have been a case in point. (7) In admonishing the nations of Europe for their excessive governmental control over culture, Nicholas Negroponte asserts: "Many artistic, industrial, and intellectual movements are driven by distinctly national and ethnic forces. The digital revolution is not one of them. Its ethos is generational and young." (8)
The question of whether cultural diversity can coexist within a truly global information and communication society is not only a European one. America enjoys a competitive advantage online; rooted traditions prevent most Europeans from riding freely on the information highway. To an extreme, if European nations would raise their children on nothing else but American movies and rock, Coca-Cola and hamburgers, what new ideas will the future generations have to offer to their American peers? Who will be able to tell them how their common ancestors lived, and who will teach them their native languages? The French have a point, although the way they express it is almost self-defeating.
In the digital age, a Eurocratic approach to cultural preservation is destined to fail. However, the so called free market will not invisibly protect a nation's cultural heritage--something has to be done to preserve cultural diversity. We could start from below, by recognizing specific identities as a cultural enrichment, by communicating across cultures, at least to develop a dialogue between us which could set the basis for the resolution of international conflicts that our parents have not been able to resolve.
Computer-mediated communication is a powerful medium through which the Global Village could come together. However, we might all have experienced how "being abroad" reinforces the love for one's country, even in absence of a bodily experience. Temptation to release our patriotic instincts could be latent in each of us, as we more frequently enter multicultural domains of cyberspace.
The opportunities for a truly global communication environment are enormous, even if mediated by computers. If the United Nations have not really succeeded in making us all feel citizens of the world, maybe we have another chance here in cyberspace--or will our virtual community-building mirror the real world experience? Without waiting for the G7 pilot projects to impress us, nor for policymakers to agree on Internet "protocols," every netizen now has the opportunity to create and share his/her own network of international relations.
Is it too idealistic to ask for the younger generations to grasp that of common interest is also the world we all live in? Is it utopian to hope that the younger generations will recognize the contribution they can make to global issues? Crucial to this realization is a mutual understanding of each other's needs and abilities--something which does transpire through CMC. My far-reaching hope is that, in the process of internationalization of communications, each of us would come to feel a sense of global belonging, bypassing any culturally inherited barrier.
Copyright © 1996 by Marco Farinelli. All Rights Reserved.