Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Mind the gap

As I move from the e-stas conference in Sevilla to the Skoll Forum at Oxford, gaps have been on my mind. Cultural gaps, and gaps created by differential speeds, and bridges across these gaps.

Usually I pride myself on being aware of gaps. I grew up all over the place, and feel that I know what it means to be foreign, to be out of the mainstream. In fact, I was just reminded that about 20 years ago, I was a sophomore at Harvard University, convinced that if I made my way back to Magdalen College here, I would feel just a little less desperately foreign. In the event, I turned the opportunity down because, I suppose, I started to cope again, and I began to feel a lot less foreign in the US.

But when I was at e-stas, I ran headfirst into a gap I didn't expect to be there--at the podium where I was to give a plenary speech. I had an hour, and a 20 minute presentation. But it became clear thate most of the Spanish people I talked to were very skeptical about the idea of opening the floor up to questions from the audience. They also clearly didn't expect me to seize the wireless mike so I could walk among the audience (the wireless mikes didn't go through to the simultaneous interpreters.) In the event, of course, there were questions from the audience. But it brought home to me how many people assumed that a broadcast format--or as Allen Gunn (aka Gunner) put it, a pulpit format--was the most efficient way to get information across. But they didn't expect me, an expert, to have questions about whether the information I chose to impart in this particular slide set, was relevant or interesting to them.

Which brings me back to the gaps that I am very much aware of, on a day-to-day basis. The obvious one is the hardware/software technology gap between GlobalGiving project leaders in the developing world and everyone else operating from the developed world. A more subtle one has to do with the cultural expectations that everyone brings to the table--we see expectations in the developed world for the web-savvy set being set by MySpace, SecondLife, Facebook--where you are expected to speak up, to approach people you may not yet know, to "put yourself out there" to see what might happen. For those who do not spend their lives online, more often than not this kind of behavior not only strikes them as inappropriate, it would not even cross their minds to consider this sort of behavior.

Either this will lead to a bigger digital divide and/or charges of cultural imperialism, or we need to find a way to meld cultures--at least online. Let's make sure that we don't exacerbate the technological gap with a cultural one.

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