Globalization, Informatization, and Intercultural Communication

Randy Kluver
Oklahoma City University


Globalization is not the only thing
influencing events in the world today,
but to the extent that there is a North Star and
a worldwide shaping force, it is this system.

- Thomas Friedman, The Lexus and the Olive Tree, 1999.


Friedman's comment above serves to illustrate the profound importance assigned to the cultural and technological forces now reshaping the world. Indeed, Friedman is only one in a long line of commentators and analysts who have ascribed tremendous importance to the forces of globalization and informatization that have already redefined industries, politics, and cultures, and perhaps the underlying rules of social order. Societies and communities have no choice but to participate in this 'New International Information Order,' but the character of their participation is shaped by specific social, cultural, economic and political conditions. This complex multi-level process of mediation between the global and the local, as an inherently communication phenomenon, promises to change not only the context, but likely the nature of intercultural communication.

But what are these forces that seem to have such a profound effect on our lives? The awesome potential of information technologies and globalization has already had a profound impact upon industries, particularly the financial markets. What are the implications of these forces for those interested in intercultural communication? Moreover, in what ways can intercultural communication theory help us to understand these forces? Is the traditional study of intercultural communication, bound as it is by the interpersonal context, even relevant to the new issues arising with globalization and informatization?

It is the purpose of this essay to explore the relevance of these globe-shaping forces to intercultural communication, and vice-versa, to identify some of the salient questions for theorists of intercultural communication that arise as a result of these forces, and finally, to identify the role of intercultural communication in providing foundations for understanding a globalized, technologized world.


I will begin by trying to define the key terms in order to avoid the mistakes of overgeneralization or misrepresentation. Globalization has been defined in various ways, but is most typically defined in reference to the interconnectedness of political entities, economic relationships, or even computer networks. Globalization refers primarily to the ways in which economic and industrial institutions (such as industries or corporations) interact in various locations throughout the world, with primacy given to no specific geographic location. Friedman argues that 'globalization involves the inexorable integration of markets, nation-states, and technologies to a degree never witnessed before' (1999, p. 7). Kennedy (1993) describes globalization in primarily economic terms, defining it as primarily integrative structures (p. 47). He further argues that globalization of economic structures means that local and national governments eventually cede control of policy to the global institutions (primarily multinational corporations, but also including non governmental, regional, or international organizations, such as the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund.)

Even though the term globalization typically refers to economic phenomenon, there are ripple effects that make the impact of globalization much broader socially and culturally. Ideas, customs, and cultural movements all follow closely after the exchange of goods across national boundaries. For example, international trade has been the vehicle by which most religions have spread, including Buddhism to East and Southeast Asia along the Silk Road, Islam to Southeast Asia, and Christianity to Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and the Americas. These changes might be marginal, such as the emergence of the 'Hello, Kitty' cult around the world, or they may be profound, such as the rise of new religious, political, environmental, or cultural movements, such as the Falungong movement, one that relies almost exclusively upon electronic communications media to recruit and mobilize.

At the recent Davos Economic Forum in Switzerland, Humberto Eco differentiated between globalization as a fact and globalization as a value. Globalization as a fact is the real economic ties, institutions, and realities that underlie a new economy. Globalization as a value is the extent to which we seek further integration of markets, pools of capital, and industries, although many seem to use the term to refer not to greater economic integration, but rather cultural and social integration. Not everyone is in full support of further globalization, as is evidenced by the December, 1999 riots at the World Trade Organization in Seattle. Opponents, such as Stop WTO!, have argued that globalization creates further poverty, destroys the environment, and ultimately favors the interests of multinationals over national interests, or WTO rules encroaching on domestic regulations, as illustrated in this graphic implying incompatible interests.

By informatization, I refer to the process primarily by which information technologies, such as the world-wide web and other communication technologies, have transformed economic and social relations to such an extent that cultural and economic barriers are minimized. In his groundbreaking book, Information Society as Post Industrial Society Yoneji Masuda (1981) argues that the technological innovations will provoke radical cultural and social changes that will be fundamentally different from the status quo. In the post-industrial, information-based society, knowledge, or the production of information values, will be the driving force of society, rather than industrial technologies (p. 29). Moreover, the convergence of technologies will precipitate further changes that promise to fundamentally alter the human landscape.

Wang describes the same phenomenon (1994) which she calls "informatization" as "a process of change that features (a) the use of informatization and IT [information technologies] to such and extent that they become the dominant forces in commanding economic, political, social and cultural development; and (b) unprecedented growth in the speed, quantity, and popularity of information production and distribution" (p. 5). The UNDP estimates that the number of Internet users in mid 1999, 150 million, will grow to 700 million by 2001 (Human Development Report, 1999). This "New International Information Order" no longer allows national or regional considerations to stand in the way of the global integration of values, attitudes, and shopping brands.

Thus, informatization is the process whereby information and communication technologies shape cultural and civic discourse. This would include not just computers and the internet, but other related technologies that have as their primary characteristic the transfer of information, including more traditional media technologies, such as film, satellite television, and telecommunications. As societies and economies re-orient themselves around technologies, there are inevitable consequences.

These two concepts, globalization and informatization, thus explain different phenomena, but there is a marked overlap between their social, political, economic, and cultural functions. Although globalization ultimately refers to the integration of economic institutions, much of this integration occurs through the channels of technology. Although international trade is not a new phenomemon, the advent of communications technologies has accelerated the pace and scope of trade. Previously, ideas and technologies took centuries to diffuse across the globe, not seconds (Sprague, 2000). With electronic communication media, however, within an instant, the most novel ideas can reach around the globe, or news of events in one continent can drastically affect financial markets around the world. On a daily basis, over one trillion dollars flows around the world on these electronic networks (Kennedy, p. 51). Conversely, globalization allows the proliferation of information technologies, and creates a world wide market and clear strategic incentives for the adoption of information technologies.

Observers of the twin forces of globalization and informatization have argued that these forces will likely have consequences far beyond the immediate economic context. Rather, they are likely to have a profound impact on the cultural and social consequences of society. Certainly, globalization has contributed to a greater global consciousness that makes political and economic issues extend far beyond their immediate borders. Human rights, the environment, and workers' rights are just a few examples of issues that have gained international, or global constituencies. Tibet's status under Chinese rule illustrates the new global reality. The Dalai Lama, for example, now has as large a following among Westerners as he does in Dharamsala. Celebrities like Richard Gere and the reincarnated lama Steven Seagal contribute their advocacy for Tibet's human rights campaign, even as the face of Tibetan Buddhism changes by the interaction (Lopez,1997).

Masuda argues that the post-industrial society will likely have the same impact, if not more, than the industrial revolution had on eighteenth century Europe. Just as the industrial revolution ultimately contributed to an increase in urbanization, social dislocation, and the development of new economic forms, the information revolution will create a new social context, including the emergence of "information communities," participatory democracy, and a spirit of globalism. Masuda clearly predicted the convergence of technological capacities with the growth of globalization, echoing McLuhan's metaphor of a global village.

Other scholars argue that globalization and informatization are likely to diminish the concept of the nation as a political institution at all (Poster, 1999). Friedman (1999) argues that as nation-states decline in importance, multi-national corporations, nongovernmental organizations, and "superempowered individuals" such as George Soros gain influence and importance. As these non-political organizations and institutions gain importance, there are inevitable challenges to political, economic, and cultural processes.

The overall impact of these forces, however, is difficult to discern. Predictions that they would usher in a new utopia, in which demarcations of economic, political, or geographical advantage would no longer matter, have proven to be chimeric. In some ways, globalization and informatization have clear advantages for human societies, but there are just as many potential problems that arise, so that the overall impact is still merely a subject for speculation. On the positive side, globalization and informatization can empower individuals and societies to engage in international arena for economic, political, and cultural resources. Moreover, these forces allow for the greater flow of information, even from places and to people who have traditionally been sealed off from the free flow of information. North Korea's Central Daily News , for example, is just as accessible to anyone with an internet connection as is CNN. As Friedman argues, technologization has brought about a "democracy of information" (p. 53).

Moreover, there is a proliferation of information about lifestyles, religions, and cultural issues. For example, the rise of the internet allows commerce to take place from anywhere, to anywhere, and is open to anyone. Consumers around the world can buy books from a source such as, and never have to travel outside of their country to get access to the information previously limited to the developed world. Religious pilgrims can use live video streams to have a "virtual visit" to religious shrines, such as the Western Wall. The telecommunications and computer networks also allow for unprecedented global activism. Nonprofit activist groups such as the Ruckus Society, for example, use technological means to gather volunteers, teach about environmental and human rights activism, publicize events, and raise support through such traditional means as offering coffee mugs and T-shirts to supporters. This democratization of information increases the potential for international harmony, although it by no means guarantees it.

Information technology can also be used to empower marginalized communities, and some resources, such as the Global Knowledge partnership, engage in activities to make information technologies, including computing resources and telecommunications, as well as more low-tech media forms, available for the purposes of national and local economic development. This video clip from the World Bank argues that technological development should be used for the purposes of providing for health, agriculture, and environmental change, and ultimately, to eliminate poverty (World Bank statement on new technology, 2000). Some argue that the new forces will help to democratize regimes that must either allow information or risk losing out on economic growth, contributing to an inevitable democratization of societies. In the People"s Republic of China, for example, the webwar between the government and democratic activists is usually won by the activists (US Embassy, 2000). There is no doubt that there is far greater access to various opinions, but whether or not these are accessed, and their impact if they are accessed, is still open to some debate.

On the negative side, however, these twin forces threaten to undermine centuries of tradition, local autonomy, and cultural integrity. The internet, for example, is overwhelmingly an English language medium, and those who want to participate fully with all it has to offer had best read English (Barber, 1995). In fact, a high level government panel recently recommended that Japan consider adopting English as an official language in the future (English 'imperialism,' 2000). Moreover, globalization establishes a global economic system in which those with the most capital are best able to capitalize on the global market, setting up what Friedman calls a "winner take all" system (1999, p. 245). Although technology levels the playing field, it does nothing to diminish the size of the competitors. The US, for example, overwhelmingly benefits from the rise of information technology, as it is the US that dominates almost all commercial sites and many, if not most, of the most profitable technology manufacturers. In addition, Westerners have clear advantages in telecommunications, as illustrated by the fact that there are more internet connections in Manhattan than in the entire African continent (World Bank statement on technology, 2000). The same access to information made possible by the internet also empowers those with devious ends, such as international terrorism or even garden variety hackers, with greater powers at their disposal to exploit or attack others.

A United Nations Development Project report in 1999 argued that globalization was indeed widening the gap between the rich and poor nations, and that the industrialized nations overwhelmingly benefit from both globalization of markets and the rising importance of information and knowledge in the new global economy. Moreover, the report estimates that English is the language of choice for 80 percent of web sites, and that 26 percent of Americans use the World Wide Web -- as opposed to 3 percent of Russians, 0.4 percent of the population of South Asia and 0.2 percent for Arab states (UNDP, 1999)

Finally, one of the potentially most devastating impact of the forces of globalization and informatization is that there is created an insidious conflict between the new global economic order and the local, or even tribal, interests. Friedman argues that this tension between the 'lexus (global) and the olive tree (local)' is one of the defining characteristics of the new world. Barber (1995) characterises the dialectic between "McWorld vs. Jihad" as an inevitable point of conflict in the future, between a "McWorld tied together by communications, information, entertainment,and commerce" versus a "Jihad...against technology, against pop culture, and against integrated markets; against modernity itself." (1995, p. 4).

Moreover, the aggressive nature of the forces of globalization and informatization make mutual acceptance untenable. It is impossible to stand outside the globalizing world, as there are too many political, economic, social, and even technological forces pushing nations and societies in that direction. Although it might be possible for an individual to refuse to cooperate, the very nature of the globalized world make it impossible for whole societies to stand against it and still prosper.

This brief introduction to the forces of globalization and informatization is by no means exhaustive, but it helps to raise some of the salient issues for further discussion. I will turn my attention now to the implications of these forces for international and intercultural communication theory, and give tentative expression to some of the questions that arise for theorists of intercultural communication.

As noted previously, intercultural communication theorists have often noted the globalizing forces of economic integration, tourism, migration, etc, as important forces that provide a rationale for increased intercultural communication competency. Few, however, have attempted to discern the more fundamental questions of how these forces will change the very nature of intercultural contact. (One notable exception is Chen and Starosta, 2000) In this section, I will attempt to articulate several broad areas of questions, and articulate some important areas that merit the attention of intercultural communication theorists. I will articulate these in two broad categories, the social implications and the interpersonal implications. Given that the field of intercultural communication is typically construed as primarily interpersonal, it might seem more helpful to address these first. However, given the fact that these forces are inherently cultural and social, I think it best to begin with a discussion of the larger social and cultural implications.


The first broad area of questions to be addressed is that of the social and cultural implications of globalization and informatization, and the relevance to intercultural communication. These are areas that are typically not directly addressed by theories of intercultural communication, but rather more often come within the range of theorists of international communication, critical theory, or even post-colonial literary theory. However, given the force we have ascribed these trends in the contemporary world, it is critical that theorists of intercultural communication engage them, as it is the social and cultural context in which all intercultural communication arises. I will specifically discuss three critical areas that need to be addressed, our understanding of culture, the ways in which cultural change is precipitated by globalization and informatization, and their role in defining personal and communal identity.

Culture, of course, is an amorphous concept, even in the most rigorous theories of intercultural communication. Typically, it is defined as a symbolic system, which includes issues of perception, cognition, and understanding. Culture is not merely an abstract set of folk practices, nor a collection of touristy festivals. Rather, as Geertz (1973) defines it, it is a set of symbolic systems, that serve not only to define and identify the culture and social structures, but also to articulate the synthesis of two essential parts of human culture, ethos and world view. Geertz employs a very diffuse, totalistic conception of culture, that can not easily be perfunctorily articulated. Every specific act, every utterance, every thought must be understood within a much larger, much broader context.

There are certain inherent challenges that globalization, in particular, make upon our understanding of culture. One of these is a tendency to equate "culture" with "nation." Scholars and teachers speak of Russian culture, Chinese culture, or Japanese culture, for example, with little reference to the distinctions between very different groupings within a national boundary. The nation, as a political abstraction, is certainly very different from the culture, which as Geertz (1973) has described it, is primarily a system of symbols. Although scholars distinguish between co-cultures within North American boundaries, this concept is rarely applied to other nations. Within the boundaries of the Peoples' Republic of China, for example, there are approximately 80 different linguistic groupings, bound by geographical, political, and yes, even cultural distinctions. The language most often called Chinese, Mandarin, or putonghua, the official language based on the dialect of the northern region around Beijing, is the official spoken language, but to the vast majority of citizens of the nation, it is a second language. Each of the regions of China have vastly different ethos, and yet this is rarely considered in abstract pronouncements about "Chinese culture." In a globalized world, the political abstractions known as nations are becoming increasingly irrelevant, while the symbolic systems known as cultures are continually in flux. With greater access to cultural diversity from within nations, our conception of "culture" will take on narrower frames of reference.

Beyond the inherent instability of the nation alluded to earlier, does globalization force us to redefine cultural boundaries? Do globalization and informatization bring about culture convergence or divergence? Do the ties formed by economic and technological integration increase or diminish the impact of culture on communication? How does global interaction affect one's cultural identity? When Israelis read South African websites, or when Chinese read Japanese sites, which cultural background is most significant?

This question is not easy to answer because it entails certain other fundamental questions. For example, media forms themselves are not passive entities. Cultural forms, codes, and values determine issues of media content and media design, including aesthetic, technical, and logical criterion. One has only to compare the websites of the aforementioned North Korean Central News Agency with the much more visibly dynamic Western news sites, such as CNN, to see immediate differences in perceptions of what "news" is, how it is to be presented, and the cultural, economic, and political assumptions regarding its purposes.

A related area of discussion is that of the forces of globalization and informatization in cultural change. Many theorists argue that globalization is working in a fundamentally centripetal manner, forcing homogenization and consumerism along Western lines. Observers from both traditionalist and integrationist perspectives perceive a certain convergence across cultural and national boundaries. The rise of a new class of capitalists in recently developed nations is often praised as a verification of the universality of notions of rationality, liberalism, secularism and human rights (Robison and Goodman, 1996, p. 2). In other words, a new culture is forming that transcends traditional political and geographic boundaries, that can best be defined by profession, technological expertise, or social class.

Others decry the "coca-colonization" and "McDonaldization" of the globe, and argue that the rampant global rise of consumerism ultimately will destroy traditional cultures. In a recent Chinese news publication, for example, a Chinese scholar argues that the "blind worship" of foreign consumer goods, the tendency to disparage patriotic heros and uplift "traiterous literati," and the compromise of national dignity are all symptoms of the "dregs of colonial culture" (Li, 1999, p. 10). In other words, the globalization of China's economy, including consumer products, as well as the rise of cybercafes on Chinese streets, all indicate the evil nature of the changing circumstances.

As evidence for the claim of homogenization, analysts point to graphic indicators, such as the abundance of McDonald's restaurants around the world, such as this one in Oman. Such blatant symbols of multinational power are indicative of the homogenization of traditional societies. Integrationists, on the other hand, argue that unlike previous manifestations of colonial power, there is nothing coercive about offering hamburgers to willing consumers.

This has serious implications regarding the transformation of culture. Globalization and informatization provide a context that ultimately can be at odds with traditional cultural forms. To what extent, for example, can Islam, which is rooted in the history and the language of the Arabs, survive postmodern globalization? Islam has certainly taken root in culturally diverse locales, such as Central Asia and Southeast Asia, but the globalized future presents a different set of challenges. As a world view, Islam might very well provide a welcome bed of stability in a world of change (Ahmed, 1992). As a cultural practice, however, globalization has introduced tensions into Islamic societies, such as allowing youth access to vastly different world views, creating a tension within traditional Muslim societies. For example, in the 1990's a survey indicated that Michael Jackson was more popular in Indonesia than Mohammed, and merely reporting on the survey landed an unfortunate journalist in jail (Hitching, 1996).

It is not just Muslim societies that must deal with the unknown future, however, but all societies in which tradition has played a major role in providing guidance to social life; in short, all societies. Some might well experience a backlash as illustrated by the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan, while others find themselves in vastly changed social circumstances. In 1997, representatives of the South Korean government, undoubtedly one of the nations that had most benefited from global economic and technological change, argued before the United Nations that globalization represented a threat to cultural diversity that must be guarded against (United Nations Press Release, 1997).

If informatization and globalization have the capacity to transform culture (the yang), then they also strengthen them (the yin). There is evidence that indicates that the emerging globalized information society, rather than weakening cultural and national identity, actually strengthens traditional cultural forms. Although the web is in English, for example, the rise of technology and the globalization of commerce allows for innovation and creativity in the enhancement of non-mainstream perspectives. For example, these forces have enabled the rise of a new genre of music, Vietnamese pop music, that would not arise in a world bounded by more traditional economic structures. The overseas Vietnamese population, from geographically diverse locations such as Southern California, France, and Canada, would not likely support the rise of concert tours, recordings, and the other trappings of the entertainment industry without the linkages that can occur in a more globalized world, which allows an economy of scale necessary to make Vietnamese pop music profitable. Zhang and Hao argue that in the "age of cyberspace, the role of ethnic media in fortifying the cultural traits of ethnic immigrants is expected to be further strengthened. As a result, ethnic groups are more likely to be assimilated into the mainstream culture without losing their own cultural roots and ethnic identity."

In this sense, then, the forces of globalization and informatization have a centrifugal effect, allowing the rise of new local traditions and cultural forms. It also increases the ability of outsiders to learn more about significant cultural, religious or historical traditions without the filtering mechanisms of more traditional media. Whereas most local bookstores, for example, carry but a handful of histories of non-Western societies, web access allows one to explore the histories, politics, economics and societies of the most inaccessible regions.

Perhaps the most succinct way of addressing these questions is to distinguish levels of integration and polarization. At the economic and technological levels, there is certainly integration. Local industries can no longer afford to not be vulnerable to international competition, and must position themselves within a global context. The anti-WTO protests in Seattle were inherently about the conflict between global trade realities in conflict with local regulation in areas such as genetically modified foods. Moreover, anyone with access to the technology can gain information about and from any part of the globe. At the level of individual identity, however, informatization and globalization allows a myriad of possibilities for the individual to make radically different choices than previously possible; in other words, these twin forces allow, and even encourage, polarization.

This leads us to the third critical issue for scholars of intercultural communication, which relates to how individuals define their local and communal identity. At the personal level, one's individual ethos can be ever more narrowly defined, providing the potential for a further polarization (or 'tribalization,' to use Barber's term) of personal identity. There are at least three aspects to this argument. First, rather than seeing oneself as essentially a citizen of a nation or a local community, people are more free to define themselves along narrower conceptions of identity and commitment, either ethnic, religious, or ideological affiliation. In this sense, the more global we become, the more provincial our attitudes can become. We are no longer forced into a certain homogeneity of lifestyle, belief, or social knowledge, but we are also no longer forced to work through issues with our neighbors.

Second, by gaining access to vast amounts of information, one is no longer dependent upon the village for knowledge and/or affirmation. For example, communication technologies allow citizens of nations in which religious conversion is illegal access to inconceivable amounts information about other global faiths, radically revamping what has historically been one of the most significant intercultural communication encounters, religious missions, and making a true independence of thought possible. Christian mission organizations, such as Campus Crusade for Christ, are already beginning to build extensive web sites with clearly evangelistic intent. Conversely, Islam, Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, and various other faiths all appear on the web, lending themselves not only to easy propagation, but also to reinvention. This has both liberating as well as debilitating aspects, because if one can more easily define herself outside of the boundaries of the local community, she can no longer rely as fully upon the local community for support. Ultimately, whether a cyber-neighbor is as reliable as a physical neighbor is but mere speculation.

Moreover, communication by electronic channels is ultimately affected by the media itself, producing potentially irrevocable distortion. Jacques Ellul argued decades ago, for example, that the technologies of modern life are ultimately destructive when applied to certain kinds of messages, such as religion (1965). In his discussion of communication technologies, which Ellul argues are a form of the totalizing system of propaganda, he argues that "Christianity disseminated by such means is not Christianity" (p. 230). Further, he argues that when the church uses the means of ideological indoctrination to propagate the faith, it might reach the masses, influence collective opinions, and "even leads many people accept what seems to be Christianity. But in doing that the church becomes a false church" (p. 230). So although the information systems that permeate the modern world allow for a greater dissemination of information, there remains the danger of the dehumanization of that information, and the social context that makes the information relevant.

And finally, the fact that globalization and informatization allow, even encourage, one to adopt new perspectives and identities, allows one to make superficial commitments to a new identity. Students who have access to marginal (and marginalized) belief systems by access to the web, for example, might come to see themselves as adherents, with little or understanding of the larger history and body of beliefs that constitutes the larger community of believers. This superficial identification with "the other" can disrupt social unity at a great cost, and yet not provide any compensatory alliances or social unions. It is one thing to convert to a new faith when in the midst of an encouraging body of support, it is another altogether when one is, in all critical aspects, removed from any sources of social support.

In summary, the cultural and social changes accompanied by globalization and informatization have clear relevance to theorists in intercultural communication in at least three key ways. The conception of culture, the ways in which cultural change is precipitated by these trends, and the role of these forces in defining personal identity and social unity are all important issues of discussion for communication scholars, as they provide the foundational assumptions for our interpretation of the processes of intercultural communication.


It should be evident by now that the trends of globalization and informatization have important implications at the foundational level for intercultural communication theory, namely, our very understanding of culture, society, and communication. I will now turn attention to some critical questions concerning the impact and role of globalization and informatization on intercultural communication practice and behavior. I will introduce only three issues, certainly not an exhaustive list, but enough to demonstrate the necessity of further research in this area. Specifically, I will raise the issues of the impact of culture on computer-mediated communication and other communication issues, the effectiveness of communication technologies to actually fulfill some of the political and social promises made for them, and the role of intercultural communication skills for professional success.

Intercultural communication has traditionally been discussed in primarily interpersonal behavior, although not exclusively so. Informatization, however, forces us to consider the ways in which culture influences the successful transmission of messages in radically different channels than traditionally conceived. The influence of culture on communication behavior is central to our field of study, and by any account, telecommunications, cyberspace, and other emerging media forms are becoming increasingly popular modes of communication. Although there is an emerging literature on technology as a communication form and computer-mediated communication (Jackson, 1997), even prompting an on-line journal, as of this writing there has been little, if any, substantive analysis of the impact of the new media form across cultural boundaries. Does a Japanese youth, for example, respond to the same way that a Pakistani would? Since there are inherent cultural issues associated with any form of communication, what complicating factors are raised by the advent of communication technologies?

This issue could significantly affect how intercultural communication is taught. Some of the key concepts associated with intercultural communication, such as the distinction between high and low context cultures, are problematic when applied to new communication contexts. Since high context cultures are those where there is a greater social knowledge, and communication is typically less explicit, can persons from a high context background rely on the same subtle nonverbal cues and situational variables when using the internet or email, for example? How is high context culture messaging transformed when there is an absence of nonverbal cues, environmental and situational variables, and at best imprecise manifestations of status and hierarchy? Does this force high-context communication to become low context? Is communication across cultures made easier across technological channels, since the ever troublesome nonverbal cues that complicate much interpersonal intercultural communication lose their importance? What new nonverbal cues arise in electronic communication? What constitutes communication competence in the new context? The number of issues associated with this line of inquiry is endless, and could radically alter how we think about, and teach, intercultural communication skills and theory.

A second significant issue associated with the convergence of global values, technology, and communication is the ability of technologies to truly fulfill the promises made for it, both in the encouragement of intercultural interaction as well as its effectiveness in the development of new political, social, or cultural movements. Certainly, the potential for further interaction with people from diverse cultural backgrounds increases with the availability of technology, but do people typically seek out diversity when interacting with technologies, or do they interact primarily with people much like themselves? UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, for example, argued that

"we in the United Nations are convinced that communications technology has a great democratizing power waiting to be harnessed to our global struggle for peace and development. The quantity and quality of available information is changing dramatically every day, in every country, in every corner of the world. Citizens are gaining greater access to information, too. And the spread of information is making accountability and transparency facts of life for any government" (United Nations, 1998).

Although these expectations reveal a potential for communication that can bring together a critical mass for political or social change, it is not clear that it is sufficient to do so. During 1989's Tiananmen demonstrations, for example, Chinese students and scholars residing in North America and Europe made use of all available means of communication to support the pro-democracy movement, including fax machines and email, and many of the networks developed during that period continue to this day in web presence, such as the Support Democracy in China page or Amnesty International's web site. The effectiveness of web presence as a persuasion device, moreover, has not been established. Does the presence of Tibetan Buddhism on the web, for example, encourage the growth of the religion? To what extent is the religion re-invented when introduced by means of technology?

A final area of inquiry related to these issues is the manner in which intercultural communication skills enable greater effectiveness in personal and professional life, in a globalized and technologized social context. One of the characteristics emerging from globalization and informatization is the rising dominance of a new "knowledge class," which is defined as a class that is supported solely by its participation in the new information industries, with little reliance upon traditional manufacturing or production industries, including agriculture. Peter Drucker argues that "the acquisition and distribution of formal knowledge may come to occupy the place in the politics of the knowledge society which the acquisition and distribution of property and income have occupied in our politics over the two or three centuries that we have come to call the Age of Capitalism."

By extension, it is communication skills, both in sending and receiving, that determines how well an individual, an organization, an industry, or a nation, does in acquiring and applying knowledge, thus broadening the chances for success. Certainly, the ability to effectively negotiate the inherent cultural issues in communication becomes more of a competitive edge in a global world. It is likely that this new knowledge class will see a convergence of certain skills, attitudes, and world views, unbounded by traditional national or cultural boundaries. Stock brokers in Japan are likely to have more in common with their counterparts in Germany and the US than they are with their own grandparents.

However, "knowledge" is an inherently relativistic concept (Breen, 1997). As Drucker (1994) argues, "the knowledge of the knowledge society, precisely because it is knowledge only when applied in action, derives its rank and standing from the situation. In other words, what is knowledge in one situation, such as fluency in Korean for the American executive posted to Seoul, is only information, and not very relevant information at that, when the same executive a few years later has to think through his company's market strategy for Korea." Drucker's argument is that the distinction between information and knowledge becomes all the more pressing, even as the shifting contours of the global world are likely to turn once vital knowledge into mere information. Participants in the global system are likely to find themselves ever and always pursuing new knowledge, and never arrive at a place where they know everything they need for success in most situations.


My goal in this essay has been to provide some initial probes into the role of the trends of informatization and globalization in intercultural communication. Of course, some of the issues that seem important today will no doubt fade into insignificance in the near future, while as yet-unheard-of issues will arise to take their place. Nevertheless, given the transforming effects of globalization and informatization in the social and cultural worlds, it is imperative for scholars of intercultural communication to begin to understand how these forces will affect not only the foundational theoretical assumptions of our scholarship, but also the significant impact of these trends on the actual practice of intercultural communication.

I would like to conclude with a brief comment about the role that scholars of intercultural communication can play in developing a theoretical framework which might serve to facilitate future understanding of these issues. Scholars and theorists of intercultural communication, perhaps more than any other discipline, are in a privileged position, as traditional disciplinary frameworks are insufficient to deal with the new realities. The twin forces of globalization and informatization can perhaps be best explained from within a framework provided by intercultural communication theorists, as from its earliest days the discipline has been concerned with the development of global consciousness, the overcoming of the conceptual and behavioral defaults provided by culture, and how communication changes individuals. It is thus likely that intercultural communication scholars can best provide a critical schema for understanding "culture" in the new world. Communication theorists have long understood that culture is inherently a symbolic system, and that it is thus a close scrutiny of the nature of symbols, their transformation, and their impact that best prepares one to understand the ways in which these forces shape and alter our symbolic understandings of our lives. Moreover, it is from within this framework that we are perhaps best suited to document and analyze the salient issues of communication consumption in a cross-cultural, cross-national, wired world.


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 Source: American Journal of Communication, June 2000