The White Nerd’s Burden

Call it digital imperialism, perhaps, in that the values are arriving not inside artworks made by others but through a tool that locals can use themselves. As Thailand is discovering, the smartphone — for all its indispensability as a tool of business and practicality — is also a bearer of values; it is not a culturally neutral device.

That may be at least partially true, but it’s also worth remembering that contact zones–whether they’re of the “traditional”, colonial sort or the digital variety–are places where there is a great deal of agency. Technology like smartphones may be bringing values with them, but if they are, it is still the users who embrace those values, however wholeheartedly or (more likely) ambivalently. More to the point, it may also be a tool allowing for the expression of values and the pursuit of agendas that were already present or are only partially a response “outside” influences (a problematic enough binary in a globalized world.)

Without that perspective, this (and several other articles in the issue) fall into the familiar trap of telling us more about the “digital cultural imperialists” (condensed here to Americans or even Silicon Valley) than about those on the other side of the equation.

The problem with the civilizing mission of the nineteenth century was not necessarily a lack sincerity–though it was frequently a pretense. Rather, the “White Man’s Burden” also completely devalued what indigenous peoples created before and after the arrival of westerners. Whether “digital imperialism” produces “a virtuous circle” or not, we’d be wise not to repeat that mistake.