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Cultural Exchange via Internet - Opportunities and Strategies
Forum of the House of World Cultures, Berlin, 12 October - 4 December, 1998

[as of December 1st 1998 the forum has been prolonged - ... open-ended]

Subject:Great expectations?
Date:Tue, 17 Nov 1998 07:12
Author:Manfred Ewel  []

Manfred Ewel

Based on my experience in intercultural artistic and intellectual cooperation, I would like to stress some limitations to the question: "How can the internet help to increase the exchange of information and cooperation between art practitioners and artists, - not only in the West, but specifically in Africa or Asia?"

These limitations may help to explain why so few people from "curated cultures" are engaged in our discussion. In being aware of the limits of our expectations, however, we have a chance to overcome existing problems and ultimately help more participants join in a global exchange on culture. Obviously, the following comments are to be seen in the context of the discussion, especially with regard to Olu Oguibe's disappointment about the level of participation, which I share.

At least initially, the internet is not a "natural" form of communication

Most people still prefer communication on a personal level to getting in touch over the net with a stranger. While this is still true in Western societies, I have lived in Africa and the Middle East long enough to know how crucial it is to gradually build up a personal relationship with people in non-Western societies. Only after such personal encounters have grown to a satisfying level of understanding each other's attitudes and aims are most people ready for a sustained dialogue towards common interests or projects.

As has been stressed by Coco Fusco and C.B. Rubin, working on the net can easily lead to losing opportunities for the company of others who are engaged in similar causes as oneself. In my view, this explains to a certain extent why the discussion on this forum has not been as lively and rich as was expected by the organizers. My conclusion for this is that we should not neglect the necessity for personal encounters and expect the internet to bring people together instead.

There are still many difficulties involved in using the internet

In our dialogue of people who are experts at using the net, e-mail etc., we should not forget that many more people are potentially interested and involved in our concern for culture, but have no experience with using a computer, let alone the internet.

A major obstacle is not only the cost of having access to the internet, but also the initial difficulty to learn how to manipulate it effectively for your own interests. Technological development is so fast, complex and time consuming that it can create a new source of frustration. Even in the West, we witness many employees who are confronted with the fact that their work has to be done on computers, but who still have not learned to use a computer effectively. The fast development in computer hardware and software necessitates a constant effort to keep abreast of its changes. Apart from money, technical accessibility and expertise, this means many hours spent in front of our monitors. Even if we are ready to invest these efforts ourselves, we must think about how to facilitate the easy use of the net by others who are not that much committed to computer literacy, but still may make valuable contributions to our common spheres of interest.

Here, efforts such as those mentioned by Andrea di Castro in Mexico, where artists are provided specific training and professional support in using the medium seem to me a good idea to familiarize artists and art practitioners with the potiential gains through the new medium. An image that comes to mind is the time honoured profession of a public writer, sitting in front of offices or on market squares who formulates letters or applications for his illiterate customers. - Has anyone tried the idea of establishing an "internet katib" or public adviser in internet cafes?

In non-industrialized societies, the time budget of a curator in a museum or lecturer at a university is largely encroached upon by many everyday activities related to chaotic traffic conditions, family matters or maintaining their social networks. Contrary to much popular belief, professionals in these countries have much less time for dedicated work and job related activities than those in the West. On top of the harder conditions of securing their living, this puts many professionals under great pressure. Any technical development in the West that can only be followed up at great cost and with constant delay potentially increases the feeling of fighting against unbeatable odds by our colleagues in most non-Western societies.

Of course, there is no way back to the times before the net became established, and fortunately, even in countries such as Tanzania, the possibilities of having access to computers and the net are growing every day. But the competition between individuals and ideas on a constantly changing, global market of jobs, products and artistic activities is growing more and more intense, a fact that is also due to the development of the internet.

With the possibility of more information, our interests are becoming more fragmented

Except with some basic developments in one's fields of interest, nobody can cope with all the information available. The difficulties of screening and selecting among huge amounts of information have been discussed elsewhere and solutions approached even before the advent of the internet. Now, with even more detailed information on more spheres of interest from all corners of the world and at an ever faster pace, most people have to limit their real interests and time on fewer subjects than before. As has been repeatedly stressed, this explosion of information makes up one of the characteristics of the net and can in some ways be regarded as an advantage to a truely global exchange between more participants than before. This is why I regard the chance for a discussion of fundamental issues on a large scale with much scepticism, as many people are already engaged in their specific spheres of interest and communication. They spend enough of their time on this and have no need for actively participating in a larger forum.

The question, to what extent they still take the time to follow or to profit from such a forum in any other way, however, is still open. In an effort to evaluate the usefulness of this forum, the organizers should publish their final report on all general aspects of setting it up and maintaining it. I am sure, it will not be the last effort to such an effect.

Manfred Ewel has worked as Director of the German Cultural Centre (Goethe-Institut) in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and as Director of Studies at the Goethe-Institut in Damascus, Syria. He has published articles on Tanzanian art and culture as well as on German-Tanzanian cultural exchange projects. He is currently based in Berlin.

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Forum of the House of World Cultures, Berlin, on the use of Internet in the cultural exchange with and between Africa, Asia/Pacific and Latin America. 12 October - 4 December, 1998

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