What will be the impact of a global computer network enabling open expression and the rapid, low-cost movement of all kinds of documents on cultural forms? The construction of inclusive information societies has restarted the debate about cultural diversity by renewing the common perception and evolution of this elusive term. We shall focus on the meaning of the two words “diversity” and “culture”.

Diversity is often perceived as disparity, variation, plurality, that is, the opposite of uniformity and homogeneity. In its first and literal sense, cultural diversity then refers quite simply to the multiplicity of cultures or cultural identities. This vision has now been superseded, though, as for many experts “diversity” is not so much defined in opposition to “homogeneity” as in opposition to “disparity”. It is synonymous with dialogue and shared values.

In fact, the concept of cultural diversity, like that of biodiversity, goes further, in that it envisages the multiplicity of cultures in a systemic perspective where each culture develops and evolves through contact with other cultures. As to culture, it draws its origins from the Latin word cultura, which designated the cultivation of fields and cattle. In the sixteenth century it acquired the meaning of the action of cultivating, that is, forming, which is at the source of the sense it is given today, that is, that which forms and shapes the mind. So, culture has then come to mean that whole complex of meanings, values and beliefs that determine how we do things and how we structure our ways of thinking [1].

An economic and cultural challenge

The term “cultural diversity” was first used, in reference to diversity within a given cultural system, to designate the multiplicity of variously sized sub-cultures and sub-populations sharing a set of basic values and ideas. Subsequently, it was used, in a context of social mixing, to describe the cohabitation of different cultural systems, or at least the existence of other significant social groups within the same geopolitical borders. In the countries of the Third World in the era of decolonization, the diversity of cultural identities rapidly became a political argument in favour of the liberation and independence of the colonized countries. It was then from the 1960s the impetus behind a new vision of development, endogenous development, and was, moreover, followed by the highlighting of a new link, the link between culture and democracy which would lead to “the promotion of the cultural expressions of minorities in the context of cultural pluralism” being made a priority.

Today, the term “cultural diversity” is tending to replace the notion of “cultural exception” which has been used in global trade talks since the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and then the World Trade Organization (WTO). In this approach, cultural diversity is intended to secure special treatment for cultural goods and services through domestic and international measures. UNESCO is currently elaborating (it is due to be signed in November 2005) a “Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions”[2].

The preliminary draft acknowledges the specific nature of cultural goods and services and the legitimacy of cultural policies. Nevertheless, its Article 20, which deals with its relationship to other international instruments, in particular those of the WTO, has been the subject of rather heated debate with the United States. As it stands, the convention would oblige its signatories to take into consideration the requirements of cultural diversity when interpreting and applying their international obligations or entering into new undertakings, even if the convention cannot be subordinated to any other treaty. The diplomatic wording was hard won after lengthy negotiations.

The protection of cultural diversity from a political and economic point of view in fact became pressing with globalization, which is characterized by the liberalization on a large scale of economic and commercial exchange, and thus, what has been called the commodification of culture. It has been noted, for instance, that over the past 20 years, trade in cultural goods has quadrupled and the new international rules (WTO, OECD) on trade are increasingly removing State support and protection measures in favour of national goods and services in the name of market freedom and free trade. The independent Civil Society Declaration to the World Summit on the Information Society underscored the urgency of the situation in the following terms: “information and knowledge are increasingly being transformed into private resources which can be controlled, sold and bought, as if they were simple commodities and not the founding elements of social organisation and development. Thus, as one of the main challenges of information and communication societies, we recognize the urgency of seeking solutions to these contradictions”.

With the advent of the new information and communication technologies, the major commercial firms have taken advantage of the changes to ensure the adoption of dangerous revisions to legislative texts in the sense of a commercial ownership of culture. This offensive by a “commodified” culture is tending to displace the location of the debates and decision-making from the multilateral bodies of the United Nations towards bodies like WTO and regional and bilateral free trade agreements and treaties. The challenge for international debates on culture is then to ensure the survival of cultural diversity despite the dangers of the information society. In any event, for the representatives of indigenous peoples, the evolution of information and communication societies must rest on respect for and promotion of the rights of indigenous communities and their distinctive nature, even though the idea of promotion is difficult to accept for partisans of free trade.

For those in favour of the promotion of cultural diversity, which includes Canada, France and the Group of 77 (group of developing countries), the aim is above all to obtain from the United States the guarantee, enshrined in law, that the convention would not be subordinated to international trade instruments. Indeed, for the United States and other supporters of free trade, the convention is a bad idea [3] and the measures referred to above stem quite simply from an interventionist conception of the State which is not likely to favour the market. Subsidies to cultural enterprises, the imposition of broadcast quotas and restrictions on foreign ownership of the media would, for them, interfere with the natural development of the market. In addition, even though it is not official, the convention on cultural diversity is for many Americans an attempt to undermine the global supremacy of their audiovisual industries.

Ethical vision of cultural diversity

On the ethical level, the Unesco Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity, adopted on November 2nd, 2004 [4] recognizes cultural diversity to be the “common heritage of humanity”. The fight to safeguard endangered cultures is thus a civic duty. This position may be explained by the fact that the scientific community has woken up to the risk of the uniformization of culture that might ensue from the globalization characterizing the shaping of an information society, even if it theoretically enables the manifestation of cultural diversity. This is because the new information and communication technologies, far from being tools, model our ways of thinking and creating. As a result, culture becomes inhabited by technology, in a dialogue with it, sometimes containing it and allowing itself to be elaborated by it. The situation creates a certain inequality and dependency of culture with respect to technology and prevents the manifestation of cultural diversity that is so vital to the knowledge society [5]. Many observers state moreover that technology has excluded a whole part of the population, which continues to live following the principles of nature, which does not believe in the state but in the power of ancestors, and does not believe in Science but in traditional knowledge. Cultural diversity is then part of the logic that considers that there are other ways of thinking, existing and working than the modern anthropocentric, ratiocentric way. Indeed, although Science and technology are easily communicated, are all cultures prepared to accept the mathematical formalism on which technology and its prescribed uses are based?

In the context of the debate on the construction of the “information society”, this adaptation, of course, comes through the diversification of contents, that is, the cohabitation of what are known as classic contents and those from minority cultures, local and indigenous knowledge [6]. How, though, can these indigenous cultures and knowledge be integrated without generalizing or particularizing them [7]? How can they be validated with exogenous criteria? The Declaration of Principles of the World Summit on the Information Society, adopted in Geneva in December 2003, stresses the fact that “applications should be user-friendly, accessible to all, affordable, adapted to local needs in languages and cultures, and support sustainable development”. That is why we have to think of cyberspace in a different way, so that each and everyone can have access to the Internet in their own language, and think of different uses adapted to certain population groups, in particular those functioning on the community model. Doing so would engender the production of adapted apparatus and structures, which could not occur without the development of local cultural industries and the introduction of models adapted to different social and economic contexts. This expression of culture, however, fits into a balance of power that needs adjusting. For the International Network for Cultural Diversity [8], it involves first of all including in the convention “strong measures to support the development of capacity in countries that, while rich in artistic traditions and cultural expressions, do not yet have the capacity to circulate these stories, music and artistic creations in the forms used by developed cultural industries”.

Towards a new approach to cultural diversity

If the general understanding of cultural diversity is based mainly on binary distinctions such as modern culture/local culture, the reality of cultural diversity is not binary, but stems from respect for and acceptance of differences, dialogue, and the quest for shared values, in order to leave behind the monologism that is a feature of the information society. The Civil Society Declaration to the World Summit on the Information Society in 2003 moreover mentions that every culture has dignity and value that must be respected and preserved [9].

In this new setting, diversity is consequently a way of approaching the structure of how we live together, based on the acceptance of a plural vision of the world [10]. We can see then that cultural diversity is perceived here as the integration, rather than the superposition or juxtaposition of cultures and that the information society in which it is expressed is above all a society of shared knowledge.

Indeed, the notion of cultural diversity refers to two quite distinct realities. There is first an initial conception focused on art and literature, which refers to the cultural expression of a community or group and encompasses cultural creativity in all its forms. Then, there are the ways of life, fundamental human rights, value systems, traditions and beliefs which refer back to a more sociological and anthropological vision of culture. Whichever concept we stick to, however, we can agree that the social context dominated by information and communication technologies requires the introduction of measures that are both incentives and restrictive, taking precedence over World Trade Organization agreements. Current debates, for instance, go as far as requiring developed countries to increase the share of the national market devoted to professionals, artists, and other creators from developing countries. This proposal, strongly reminiscent of the debates on the New World Information and Communication Order on redressing the balance of information flows, of course is opposed by the States with the largest cultural industries. Nevertheless, the question posed here goes to the very heart of building an information society ¬accessible to all.

10 April 2006

couverture du livre enjeux de mots This text is an extract from the book Word Matters: multicultural perspectives on information societies. This book, which has been coordinated by Alain Ambrosi, Valérie Peugeot and Daniel Pimienta was released on November 5, 2005 by C & F Éditions.

The text is under the Creative Commons licence, by, non commercial.

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