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What is Culture?

Technology As Culture
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

Technology is an important aspect of culture.  The environment is one factor in the development of technology.  Various other social, cultural or philosophical factors are involved in both the development of technology and the value given to various technologies from one culture to another.

Religious or Secular
We might characterize the technology of the broad culture of the West as Conceptual Technology and members of that culture as predominantly Conceptual Technologists.  This technology is primarily a Technology for Ideology, Organization and Production.  In this society and culture Efficiency is defined in terms of Convenience, Time and Task.

In some cultures the philosophical principles and their implications, often compartmentalized into theology, administration, etc., are not overtly stated.  The social structure is usually more apparent and open to analysis.

The basis of this high conceptual technology is the Western cultural revolution called the Enlightenment.  The development of the machines leading to the Industrial Revolution was supported and encouraged by Deism and the related philosophy of Mechanism.

In this mechanistic philosophy and its resultant technology Time is the positions of the hands on the face of a clock and the mathematical measurement of increments between those positions.  These increments represent measurable segments of a characteristic of cosmic reality because they are based on cosmic movements and relationships between the heavenly bodies.  Time is inexorable.  Time is objective.  Time defines events.

We might characterize the technology of the broad culture of Africa as Relational Technology and members of that culture as predominantly Relational Technologists.  This technology is primarily a Technology for Community, Relationship and Role.  In this society and culture Efficiency is defined in terms of Tradition, Obligation and Relationship.

This would indicate that Africans, as a whole, are better equipped culturally than European cultures for preserving community, maintaining group solidarity, and fostering group nurturing, reflecting the basic cultural values.  They might more readily accept and implement the characteristics of the gospel life described by the Spirit-filled servant life proclaimed in the New Testament.

Time in this cultural reality is the experience of events and the cycle of recurring events of nature — the rain and the dry, the warm and the cool.  Human life is defined by significant events.  Time is a function of the events.  Events start when people get there.  Time is negotiable.  Time is subjective.  Events define time.

Western vs. African Concepts
There are other areas of difference coming from different technologies.  These often involve different assumptions about the world and a different set of experiences.  One area affected would be Geometry and Symmetry, in art and buildings, planning and procedures.  I have noted often that square corners are more important to a western builder than to a Kenyan builder.

Driving patterns are affected.  Those dominated by the western mechanistic philosophy that led to the development of the automobile will think of the geometric pattern of turning, merging, and taking turns.

Those without that background will go wherever they want, ignoring the Art and Order of the system.  Other areas of life will reflect that difference in sense of order.  Westerners will be confused or frustrated with some aspects of the group orientation of relational technology cultures.

Form and Balance
I remember years ago hearing Dr. Tom Brewster (co-author of Language Acquisition Made Practical) explain what they discovered when trying to design a version of the tract titled Four Spiritual Laws for use in Jamaica.

In the American model a circle with a very orderly set of dots uniformly placed within the area of the circle hosts a chair with a cross above it, representing the organized life of faith in Jesus.  The circle representing the chaotic life without faith has random dots all over the place, with the chair and the cross at odd positions within the field of the circle.

When asked which they would prefer, Jamaicans invariably chose the "disordered" one, because the other looked artificial, like a watch, made by man, while the other was like God's creation, like the stars at varying distances in the sky.  The "correct" drawings conveyed the wrong message.

Cultures vary in their perception and preference of design for order and disorder. A culture's worldview concepts of order and structure are ignored at the risk of total failure to communicate, or at best to communicate something different than intended.


Original version of this article published in the series What is Culture? in Focus on Communication Effectiveness, a cross-cultural communication newsletter, Nairobi, Kenya, September 1997
This version posted on Orville Jenkins Thoughts and Resources 17 August 2001

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD

Copyright 1993, 2001 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Other rights reserved.

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