Negotiating the Global and the Local: How Thai Culture Co-opts the Internet
First Monday


Negotiating the Global and the Local: How Thai Culture Co-opts the Internet

As the Internet is spreading around the globe, a problem is created concerning its impact on the local cultures. This paper argues that the relation between computer-mediated communication technologies and local cultures is characterized neither by a homogenizing effect, where the technologies bring about one global monolithic culture, nor by an erecting of barriers separating one culture from another, where there is no impact at all. Instead, local cultures usually find ways to cope with the impact and are resilient enough to absorb it without losing some kind of identity. A case study is presented on a local Internet scene in Thailand to see how Thai culture co-opts the Internet and how its identity is being constantly negotiated.

Contents

Introduction
The Internet and Thai Culture: Cybercommunity at Pantip.com
Negotiating the Global and the Local
Some Philosophical Reflections

Introduction

The world today is best characterized by the phenomenal growth of the Internet as well as by globalizing trends in everything ranging from science and technology to the latest toys and hairstyles. Obviously the two are intimately connected with each other. The physical structure of the Internet, which allows for myriad alternative means of communication, has rendered ineffective any effort to control and censor it. However, many fear that this power of the Internet might bring harmful results to a community. Some Asian governments and leaders, for example, have voiced concerns that the openness of the Internet could be detrimental to the moral fabric and cultural identity of some communities.

However, despite the rhetoric, many Asian countries are embracing the Internet at full speed, believing that it would bring useful ideas and information in today's competitive world. Malaysia is well known for its anti-Western rhetoric, but it is one of the most advanced countries in the region in terms of diffusion and utilization of the technology. Thailand is creating a country-wide network linking all schools together [1], and is discussing ways to install an Internet booth in every post office nationwide. This enthusiastic adoption of the Internet calls for a sustained reflection as to what its impact might eventually be on the world's cultures. Supposing that cultural diversity is an intrinsically good thing which should be preserved, then the globalizing effect of the Internet is naturally a cause for concern. Will the Internet eventually create a single world such that differences and diversities among cultures will disappear? Will human beings become so similar to one another that they all look like the cyborgs or the drone-like inhabitants of a space ship that one sees in Star Trek?

In this paper I would like to be able to show that the relation between computer-mediated communication technologies, especially the Internet, and local cultures is characterized neither by a homogenizing effect, where the technologies bring about one global monolithic culture, nor by an erecting of barriers separating one culture from another, where there is no impact at all. Instead, local cultures usually find ways to cope with the impact and are resilient enough to absorb it without losing some kind of identity. The distinction between the global and the local is always a negotiated one, and corresponds to what Roland Robertson calls "the interpenetration of the universalization of particularism, and the particularization of universalism" [2]. The paper thus builds upon an earlier study of mine (Hongladarom, 1998), which uses the situation in Thailand as an example, and proposes a theoretical framework, derived from Michael Walzer's "thick" and "thin" approaches to morality (Walzer, 1994), with which one could better understand the vexing questions surrounding the issue. In the final section I will also touch briefly on how this negotiation, interpenetration between the "thick" local and the "thin" global bears on the philosophical problem of universality or relativity of moral judgments.

The Internet and Thai Culture: Cybercommunity at Pantip.com

In my previous paper (Hongladarom, 1998), I studied discussions and exchanges in a Usenet newsgroup, soc.culture.thai, and found that members of the Thai cybercommunities do in fact retain enough of their cultural identity to classify them as Thai. The Internet scene in Thailand today, however, has changed considerably since my research for that paper was conducted more than two years ago [3]. Soc.culture.thai is no longer the "in" place for Thai cybercitizens to hang out. Instead many Web sites contain discussion boards on a very wide variety of topics. This migration may be due to the text-based nature of the Usenet, which is much less appealing than the graphic-based World Wide Web. Among the most popular Web sites in Thailand are pantip.com (http://www.pantip.com/ or http://pantip.inet.co.th/), sanook.com (http://www.sanook.com/), and hunsa.com (http://www.hunsa.com/). Of the three perhaps pantip.com is the most well known. The name 'pantip' itself is taken from Pantip Plaza, the largest and most popular department complex specializing in computer hardware and software. It is also notorious as the center of the multimillion baht pirated software industry in the country. The most attractive feature of the site is that it contains a "café" consisting of fourteen "tables" for discussions on a variety of topics.These tables are named after places in Thailand related to the topic discussed at each table.


Opening page of http://www.pantip.com/

The table metaphor is appropriate since this means that the site itself is a building (perhaps Pantip Plaza itself), or better an open forum, from which one can choose to go to any tables in the café and join the ongoing discussions, which are conducted almost entirely in Thai. The connection with the traditional Thai coffee shop, where Thais hang around to chat and discuss about everything, could hardly be mistaken.

What is noticeable in these tables is the high level of civility and civic-mindedness that participants show toward one another (Hongladarom and Hongladarom, 1999). The Webmaster has the power to delete any postings reported to him by the members of the community to be offensive and unacceptable, as there is a link on each discussion page on which participants can click to report unsuitable topics or posts to the Webmaster. Thus it appears that the pantip.com community agrees to a certain standard of appropriate behavior, not unlike a real community which has its own standard based on certain common grounds. Compared to geographical space, this is akin to actions by ordinary citizens of reporting unlawful or unruly behaviors to those who are responsible for upholding the community standard.

Pantip.com has a list of rules, or "netiquettes," which members are expected to follow. The influence of cultural attitudes on the content of these rules are evident [4]. For example, the first and most important rule is that a post to the discussion board shall never contain anything that is critical of the King and his family. Criticisms of the King and the royal family are never tolerated in Thailand, either in cyberspace or anywhere else. And the Thai people's love of the King and the monarchy means that the rule is a natural outflow of this love and respect.

Here are all the eight rules for posting on pantip.com café, translated into English by me:

  1. Messages critical of the King and his royal family are absolutely prohibited.
  2. Do not post messages which contain foul language and sexually explicit content.
  3. Do not post messages which are intended to cause a person to be insulted, hated by others without clearly citing the reference.
  4. Do not post messages which are challenging or inciting, with the intention of causing quarrels or chaos on this Web site, whereas the source of these quarrels or chaos is not due to free expression of opinions by a self respecting person.
  5. Do not post messages which attack or criticize in a negative way any religions or the teachings of any religion.
  6. Do not use pseudonyms which resemble somebody else's real name with the intention of misleading others to think that the real owner of the name will be damaged or lose his or her reputation.
  7. Do not post messages which might cause conflicts among educational institutions.
  8. Do not post messages containing personal data of others, such as pager number, e-mail addresses or telephone numbers, with the intention of causing troubles to the owner of the data. Posting of pager number is especially prohibited, since it is the easiest way for others to cause troubles.

  9. (Source: http://pantip.inet.co.th/cafe/frame_rule.html)

These rules are actively enforced on the Web site. When a participant finds what he or she believes to be an offensive post which violates one or more of these rules, he or she reports this to the Webmaster. Once the report is accepted, the offending post will be removed from the discussion table and put in another page on the site, namely the "trash" page (http://pantip.inet.co.th/evident/trashed.shtml). A link to the trash page is also present on each discussion table and access to it is unrestricted. Thus, it is not the case that the pages on pantip.com are censored; the offending pages are merely removed and put together in a special place. There is a warning on the top of the trash page that these pages have been reported to violate the rules and that one reads them at one's own risk! I think this is a fair way to negotiate between restriction of freedom of expression and maintaining a level of civility which is necessary for running the community smoothly.

One can see the cultural attitudes which are at work in the way pantip.com is maintained and organized. The restriction on messages critical to the King and the royal family is almost a taboo, and this is one of the most visible signs of Thai identity in cyberspace, apart from the fact that almost all the content of the site is in the Thai language. Many pundits believe that the Internet will eventually destroy cultural barriers due to its universal nature and its powerful transmission of ideas and information [5]. However, what is happening at pantip.com, and at other Thai Web sites suggests otherwise. According to the pundits, that the Internet enables a kind of communication where visual cues are absent and where ideas and information can be conveyed anywhere with no restriction should result in the world's cultures getting more similar and homogenized. This has so far not been the case.

To illustrate, many topics of discussion at these tables at pantip.com are peculiarly Thai. Here are some examples of what is being talked about: "Does Buddhism teach irrationality?" (This post created a lot of controversy); "I sympathize a lot with Chuan" (the current Prime Minister); "What would you do if your boyfriend or husband has an affair?" (A respondent answered that she couldn't do anything because she had already fallen in love with him!); "Do you feel ashamed that our country has such a premier as Chuan?"; "I think the current government is good enough"; "The dogs bit a lot: How good!" (Referring to the recent incident where police dogs bit several protesters in front of the Government House.); "I want to know why the older students have to yell at us"; "Why don't Thai people like watching Thai movies?"; and, "If an alien dies, will he (or she) have a soul?" (The word in Thai was winyaan, which is borrowed from Pali viññana [Skt. vijñana ].Thais believe that after death the deceased's winyaan wanders around for a while, waiting to be reborn. Thus it is only roughly equivalent to the Christian soul, but not exactly the same.)

One of the more popular discussion topics centers around the question: What do the male students' hair styles and female students' underwear tell us about Thai education? The question was posted by "Players", who followed it with this message as a rationale for raising this topic for the group. The message was again translated from the Thai by me:

I noticed that some topics concerning the frustrations of students of both sexes (perhaps high school ones) have been raised recently at this Rajdumnern table. I am interested in these topics quite a lot, because almost all the topics which have attracted more than 30 responses are almost always about heated exchanges in politics or other controversies. So I have not thought that every topic on hair styles and underwear would each raise as many as 30 responses or more.

What does this tell us?

Do the frustrations of Thai students just come out of nowhere? I doubt it, especially since I used to have my hair cut short and have a girlfriend who had to wear white underclothes to protect her bras from being seen.

I can see the picture. That is, the method of education in Thailand usually emphasizes orders and commands without giving reasons or alternatives. The teachers do not offer advantages or disadvantages of their orders (In fact it's like this all over the society.)

Orders raise the question: Why do you have to boss me around?

If we try giving reasons or explanations as to the necessity of any rules (such as rules for hair length, or whether girls have to wear underclothes or not), I believe the resistance or the questions in the students' mind will go down a lot, even though it's an order.

Students today are not stupid, because if we look at the language, thoughts, as well as assumptions and presuppositions of "Attila" (the raiser of the topic of male hairdos) and "M6 student" (the raiser of the topic of female underwear), he and she appear to have amazing thinking abilities.

So I am leaving this topic for us to discuss. That's all for now.

From Players - [27 Oct. B.E. 2542 (AD 1999) 12:08:25]
(Source: http://pantip.inet.co.th/cafe/subject/rajdumnern/P465189.html)

Education and the treatment Thai students are receiving in schools are perennially popular topics on any Web sites or discussion groups. Educational methods in the country have been predominated by the rote learning method. Many teachers usually stuff information into the students without taking care whether the students really understand the material or not. What does matter is only that the students come up with correct answers in the university entrance examinations. However, the students themselves have started to question the validity of this method of learning, and the Internet is a perfect medium where students can vent their frustrations to their peers. Since most Thai cybercitizens currently consist of high school and university students, such venting of frustrations always attracts a lot of attention.

Negotiating the Global and the Local

The netiquette rules and the passage on hairdos and underwear demonstrates that there is a horizon which delimits the 'cultural universe' of the Thai participants in pantip.com. One can see this from the clash of cultures between the students who demand justification for orders, and the teachers or the authorities who do not always provide it. This horizon is not absolute; that is, the world of the Internet and computer-mediated communication technologies is not similar to the pre-modern where each cultural universe is independent from one another. The cultural universes on the Internet are flexible and permeable. They are receptive of what gets into it from outside while maintaining their own identity. Such interpenetration and diffusion of ideas, images, and information is made possible by the Internet on a global scale. However, this globalizing trend of the Internet is tempered by local sensitivities and concerns. This interplay between the globalizing and localizing forces has been amply documented and theorized about in the sociological literature (See, for example, Albrow and King, 1990; Robertson, 1992; Friedman, 1994; Lash and Urry, 1994; and, Featherstone, Lash and Robertson, 1997, especially the paper by Robertson, who aptly calls this phenomenon "glocalization"). Perhaps the two forces are but facets of the same phenomenon. And if so, then a dynamic and active process is going on which negotiates between the two. The participants at pantip.com do not want to become mere blank faces in the globalized crowd; nonetheless, they do not want to shut themselves completely from the world either.

Even though members of pantip.com retain their sense of identity, this identity is not fixed. There is no essence of Thai identity, no necessary and sufficient condition for what it is to be Thai, as living cultures are always dynamic and evolving (Hongladarom, 1999a). The identity is a dynamic and a negotiated one. Thais have to juggle between what is required for them to be a member of the globalized world community, such as sharing the same broad set of beliefs and values, but at the same time they are conscious of their differences and identity. To connect to the Internet is itself to join the world community, and here the pundits seem to be correct when they espouse the Internet as a very powerful agent of globalization. On the other hand, the Internet could indeed be used as a means of maintaining the kind of communication which James Carey [6] calls the "ritual view of communication," which is characterized by the utilization of communication to maintain communal ties that bind a community together. One does not have to expend much imaginative effort in seeing that what is happening at pantip.com is also "ritual" in that the Web site could be seen as a means by which Thais form and maintain their own community. The Internet is popularly known in Thailand as a place where teenagers hang out and find their girlfriends or boyfriends. Thus it serves as a substitute for the traditional meeting grounds where boys and girls meet, such as shopping malls or cinemas. (As with other cybercommunities elsewhere, women, or those who identify themselves as such on the Net, are instantly popular and can attract a lot of traffic.) The analogy does not stop here, for the culture and identity that emerges from these real gatherings could well be replicated online in Web sites such as pantip.com.

That the global and the local are negotiated means that there is constant action to decide what should be allowed in and what should be kept out. Neither absolute homogeneity nor absolute diversity is likely when the global and the local are dynamically negotiating. Instead the local is permeated by the global to the extent that the local finds from the global what is useful, and employs various strategies to retain its identity. The global, on the other hand, finds itself tempered by various locals to such an extent that eventually the global can no longer claim identity with any local. It is not that one local can claim globality at the expense of the other locals; on the contrary, the global that is emerging from the (ideological, political, economic, culture, social) interaction among the world's societies and cultures is such that it eventually contains elements from everywhere, but belongs to nowhere. The global, thus, becomes what I previously called "cosmopolitan" (Hongladarom, 1998). That is, it represents a makeshift mode of interacting among social entities compelled by the logic of advanced capitalism. For example, Tom Yum Kung has become a part of the cosmopolitan cuisine, as Thai food and restaurants are gaining popularity everywhere. When an American consumer eats Tom Yum Kung, however, he or she does not necessarily take part in the elaborate history and narratives that constitute the traditional Thai world system of which Tom Yum has been an integral part. Furthermore, when a Thai, for example travels to the United States and eats the dish at a Thai restaurant owned by a Korean-American who employs a Vietnamese cook, what he is eating is less a part of his or her own cultural heritage, her cultural roots, than a consumer item catered to the global taste. When cultures are intricately mixed, there emerges what Featherstone calls 'third' cultures , which are "conduits for all sorts of diverse cultural flows which cannot be merely understood as the product of bilateral exchanges between nation-states" [7].

Can we really then assume that there will be a global uniform culture or a mass society, as a result of the global economy? According to Lash and Urry, it is plausible that there will be no one global culture "but that there are a number of processes which are producing the globalization of culture" [8]. They further elaborate that "these globalization processes are leading to the proliferation of multiple popular and local cultures which only in part correspond to or are congruent with dominate ideologies within particular nation-states" [9]. What is happening at pantip.com could perhaps be regarded as one of the processes Lash and Urry are talking about. Furthermore, Friedman also shows how local people employ "different strategies of identity, which are always local, just like their subsumed forms of consumption and production, have emerged in interaction with one another in the global arena." [10]. It is the globalizing process of the Internet that engenders the proliferation of many local cultures as we have seen in the case of Thailand. The globalizing force does not create a single, monolithic cultural entity. But at the same time it would be mistaken to say that it cannot or does not change the local cultures. On the contrary, the global and the local are always negotiated. There is a constant intermingling and interpenetrating between the two.

This interpenetration is similar to the interplay between the Yin and the Yang in Daoist thought. The Daoist diagram of the intermingling and constantly moving Yin and Yang - constant dynamism between two polar opposites forever trying to overcome their duality, but never succeeding - perhaps exemplifies the process of negotiation between the global and the local quite well. As the participants at pantip.com are discussing students' hair styles and the requirement to wear white underclothes, they are in fact discussing about cultural values, and are negotiating between the traditional Thai trait of deference to the superiors, and the new culture which demands justification and reasons for each command and order. This act of negotiation by no means entails that they are becoming less Thai; instead, they feel that their culture will even become strengthened if some aspects of the traditional culture are critically examined and altered to suit the changing times and circumstances.

Similarly, the prohibition against criticisms of the King and the royal family does not stem from any arbitrary decision of the Webmaster. In fact it appears to reflect the general will of the members of the community, all of whom are deeply respectful to the King and the institution of monarchy. This can be seen from the "trash" page, which contains a post criticizing the King in some way. This post was promptly put to the trash page followed by a barrage of comments and requests by the pantip.com members that this offending post be immediately trashed. However, this does not mean that any criticism of the King is not tolerated at all. There is a post in one of the discussion tables asking why the King did not come out earlier when there were national crises, such as the ones on October 16, 1973, and on May 18, 1992. During these times Thais were killing one another, and at both times the King entered the scenes and stopped the killing through his moral power. Thus, prohibiting criticisms of the King is not a restriction of free speech. It is more akin to prohibiting acts which could destabilize the whole community. This is so because the monarchical institution has been instrumental in Thailand as a leverage against abuses of power by the military or the corrupt politicians. Since freedom of speech is only possible in a well functioning community, a community whose members respect one another and share a substantial amount of beliefs and values together, any act which threatens the community or the right to free speech itself cannot claim freedom of speech for its protection. As the monarchy has been the symbol of unity and the source of freedom of the Thai people, acts which threaten the respectful status of the King is thus not tolerated. The rule against criticisms of the King, then, does not restrict freedom; it makes realization of freedom in concrete situations possible.

Thais' deeply held reverence to the King, thus, reflects their unique cultural attitude and their unique historical position. This attitude is also present when an increasing number of Thais join the cyberspace, making it the case that the whole of cyberspace itself is not monolithic, but varies widely thanks to many cultural and national differences. Moreover, as the American dominance of cyberspace declines as more and more countries are joining the Internet, cultural issues will become more prominent in the future [11]. The Internet will perhaps serve the dual function of fostering global communication and global ties on the one hand, and strengthening local preferences and agenda on the other [12]. That the two opposite poles could exist together on the Internet shows that the process of negotiation between the global and the local is going on. The Internet does not just globalize, but it does not just localize either [13].

What I have written so far focuses only on the interplay between the Thai national culture vis-à-vis the global culture represented by the Internet. However, it is conceivable that the same dynamic could well replicate itself when the Internet becomes more diffused to more, deeper, strata of Thai society. At present only a very few minority of Thais are able to enjoy the Internet, indeed currently only 1% of the entire population are "wired." Almost all of them are middle-class Thais who are much more affluent than the vast majority of the population. There is clearly ample room for the Internet to grow in Thailand, but only if these disparities in income and educational attainment are overcome. In any case, when the Internet becomes so diffused to more groups, there will inevitably be conflicts between the dominant culture of Bangkok and the cultures of the various localities in the country. The Karens, for example, who are a minority with a distinct history and culture, would resent being imposed the culture of Bangkok through the national ISPs. Hence the struggle of Bangkokians to retain their culture against the globalized Internet culture, or to co-opt it into its cultural universe, would seem to recur in a smaller scale at the local levels. However, the symmetry is not perfect as the Karens are much less powerful, culturally, economically or politically, to resist the tide. The impact of the Internet on the cultures of dispossessed ethnic minorities in a country dominated by a single ethnic group such as Thailand will become one of the major contentious issues in the near future when the Internet are diffused to a larger portion of the world's population [14].

Some Philosophical Reflections

This negotiation between the global and the local, therefore, reflects what Walzer [15] calls the "thick" and "thin" morality. The first is the kind of morality which is locally based and endowed with histories, narratives, and myths that altogether make up a culture's sense of identity. The latter, on the other hand, is something that can be widely shared because its content, like the words 'truth' or 'justice', is capable of a wide range of interpretation and adoption in various locales. Thus, Walzer argues, Americans can readily sympathize with the Czech demonstrators calling for truth and justice, whereas they might disagree with them if the actual details of what constitutes truth or justice have to be worked out.

One of the perennial philosophical problems has been the one based on the agon between the universal and the particular, especially with regards to morality. Thus a version of this problem in this case would be: If there is the thick and the thin morality, then which is the correct one? Is there 'the one true morality' or 'the one true value system' such that each and every locality should in the end subscribe to if it is to be rational? If it turns out that the one true morality here has a thick content, then should every other thick version be disposed of in favor of it? Or if this one true morality has only a thin content, then should all the thick versions be disposed of altogether?

However, if the thick and the thin are always engaged in dynamic negotiations as I have discussed in this paper, if, as Robertson maintains, there is "the interpenetration of the universalization of particularism, and the particularization of universalism", then these questions appear rather pointless. This is so because when the two "polar opposites" are in fact "interpenetrating" into each other (just like the Yin and the Yang), it is hard to see which is really which. Hence any scheme that is founded on a strict separation between the two would appear pointless. It would be nice if the world consists of only one morality. Then the thick and the thin would ideally merge into one. But even philosophers agree that the world contains a wide variety of systems of moral judgments. If a system of universal moral judgment could be proposed and defended, then it would be very hard to see how that kind of system could be of real use in concrete situations because each particular case is different. To gloss over these differences in favor of a universal system of judgment would seem to miss out on the important details which could be decisive in any moral judgments that are involved. One is reminded of Hegel's criticism of Kant's moral theory, and of the former's insistence that morality be based on concrete particularities if it is to be of any use [16].

Nevertheless, it won't do either just to focus on the particularities and the localities without paying attention on what is shared among the various different localities there are in the world. The universe of each culture is not as limited as it was before the advent of globalization. The Internet has made this abundantly clear. Pundits have argued that the Internet's globalizing role has made it appropriate as a "cybermissionary", pushing forward ideas (such as human rights, democracy, and individualism) from one place to another under the guise of universality. However, if my interpretations are correct, then the Internet does not act like a cybermissionary. Instead it acts like a universal conduit, carrying ideas and information from one place to another. Since the global and the local are negotiated, locals have a leeway to consider and pick only those aspects carried by the universal conduit for their use. If they find ideas, such as human rights or individualism, to their liking, then they will consider adopting them. They will debate among themselves whether these ideas should be adopted at all, or how much they should be modified to suit the local scene before they are adopted and taken as part of the local cultures.

To illustrate this point, consider the case of intellectual property rights. One of the hottest disputes between the U.S. and China focuses around this issue. China and some other Asian countries has been frequently accused of violating these rights. However, a closer look into the issue reveals that the dispute is not only about trade. It concerns deep rooted cultural differences which separate cultures of the West and the East. The notion of intellectual property rights originated in Western civilization as part of the rise of global capitalism. Thus the notion is part and parcel with such notions as human rights, individualism, and others, which form a set of values necessary for global capitalism to work. (A country must respect the rule of law, transparency in the operation of its government, and respect for individual's rights in order to be able to participate fully in the global trade. There may be a certain level of corruption - such is the failings of human nature - but at least the system needs to be there.) When global capitalism spread to Asian cultures, Asians either did not understand intellectual property rights or disagreed with their assumptions. In a traditional Asian culture, intellectual creation is not for the material benefit of the individual creator only. Thai artists who produced great Buddha images never claimed these creations to be their own. Instead Thais believed that these great Buddha images were created by the gods, as mere humans could not ever create such beautiful things. Some other creations, such as literary works and music, were donated to the community, or to the "public domain", in order for the whole community to benefit from them. The creators only created - but they did not own. What they gained from their artistic creativity was recognition and respect from their community. This value system clashed rather squarely with the global notion of respecting the rights of the creator of intellectual property.

Nonetheless, as Asian countries have become more and more involved in global trade, the old notion of giving away intellectual creations for free does not fit the situation. Asians are beginning to see the importance of respecting intellectual property rights, and are instituting formal means to do so. Thailand, for example, has established a government department to take care of this issue directly. This adoption, however, does not go unchallenged. As Thais or other Asians become more involved in the global trade and global interaction of all kinds, they are beginning to assert their identities to the world. These identities are negotiated ones, but even so they are still identities. I have written elsewhere that the notion of intellectual property rights needs to be modified if the problem of resistance to genetically modified organisms in Asian countries is to be resolved. The owners of these rights should share their knowledge with local companies so that locals have a stake in owning and managing the technology (Hongladarom, 1999b). What could emerge is then a kind of global system of values which actually belong to everywhere and nowhere at the same time, together with the "thick" values which are parts of each culture's sense of identity. Intellectual property rights, in order to be truly global, have to be "thin" values. These rights cannot carry their Western cultural baggage. Only the actually functional parts, those parts necessary for conducting international trade, can be shared by the different cultures, but not the philosophical stories behind them, which belong to a particular culture.

As the universes of culturse are fusing, it has become increasingly difficult for a decision made by one culture not to affect others. Hence a culture naturally examines the kind of responses or reactions that will arise from other cultures as a result of a decision. What is truly global or universal in this case, then, can only be something that can be shared by different localities. The global, by itself, cannot contain any narratives or myths that sustain them and maintain their identities. Unless the global is accorded with myths or narratives peculiar to the locality in which it is adopted, it remains forever fleeting and unintegrated into the actual lives and hopes of the members of the community.

About the Author

Soraj Hongladarom is an assistant professor of philosophy at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand.
E-mail: hsoraj@chula.ac.th
Web: http://pioneer.chula.ac.th/~hsoraj/web/soraj.html

Acknowledgments

This paper is a revised version of an earlier draft presented at the Eighth East-West Philosophers' Conference, January 9-21, 2000, University of Hawai'i at Manoa, Honolulu, Hawaii. I would like to thank Decha Tangseefah, Charles Ess, Henry Rosemont, and Tu Wei-Ming for their insightful comments. Research for this paper has been made possible in part by a grant from the Thailand Research Fund, Division Three. I wish to thank Profs. Vicharn Panich and Suchata Jinajitr for their support. I am also indebted to Chulalongkorn University, which has granted a leave of absence from October 1999 to September 2000, allowing me to devote full time to write the paper.

Notes

1. The project is under the responsibility of the National Electronic and Computer Technology Center (NECTEC), and its URL is http://www.school.net.th/. At present more than 1,200 schools are linked to the main server of the project.

2. Robertson (1992), p. 100.

3. For a detailed description of the local Internet scene, see Steven Cisler, 1999. "Letter from Southeast Asia," First Monday (September), at http://firstmonday.org/issues/issue4_9/cisler/

4. Herring (1996), p. 115.

5. In a recent article, "Is the Internet an Instrument of Global Democratization?" (Hill and Hughes, 1999), authors Keven Hill and John Hughes studied more than four thousand Usenet messages originating from many different top level domain names representing many countries, and found that the more a country espouses freedom of speech and democratization, the less virulent the messages in the Usenet newsgroup concerning that particular country appear to be against the political rulers of that country. On the other hand, messages posted to newsgroups concerning a country which is less potlically free contain much more material that are hotly political and anti-government. Hill and Hughes concludes the paper that "[t]he utopians who think the Internet will bring about a democratic revolution have reasons to be slightly optimistic. If the mere fact that political discourse against repressive governments is taking place is a good in itself, then the utopians have reason to celebrate. Perhaps the Internet will bring about a wider democratic revolution in the world. At least people are talking about politics and virtually protesting against lesser democratic governments on the Usenet" (Hill and Hughes (1999), p. 126). However, these findings do not prima facie contradict the thesis of this paper. Thai people, for example, have used the Internet as a medium against their government since they were able to connect to it many years ago. And today the activity appear unabated, despite the fact that Thailand has progressed rather well on the political freedom issue. More importantly, Hill and Hughes' findings do not entail that the Internet will erase the existing cultural boundaries once it succeeds in promoting democratization. This is because culture is fluid enough to retain its identity even though its population embrace ideals such as democracy. Thais do not become less Thai when they embrace democracy, for example. They still eat the same food, talk the same language, and revere the monarchy. Many factors other than democratization are involved in a consideration of changes in cultural identity.

6. Carey (1989), pp. 18-23.

7. Featherstone (1990), p. 1.

8. Lash and Urry (1994), p. 306.

9. Ibid.

10. Friedman (1994), pp. 115-116.

11. Stratton (1997), p. 260.

12. Graham (1999), however, argues that the Internet will subvert national boundaries, since it "has brought into existence the degree of internationalism which is without precedent" (Graham (1999), p. 38). It is clear that the communication enabled by the Internet indeed transcend national boundaries, but one should be cautious to infer from this situation that the Internet will create a giant, monolithic culture. Local and national cultures will still play a large role, as citizens identify themselves and seek their identities amidst the growing intercultural and international connections. One should also be aware that language poses a strong obstacle against a quick realization of internationalism.

13. Thus, the role of the Internet presented in this paper corresponds to what Jonathan Friedman calls "weak globalization" (Friedman (1994), pp. 202-204). According to Friedman, weak globalization is the process whereby "the local assimilates the global into its own realm of practiced meaning." Strong globalization, on the other hand, "requires the production of similar kinds of subjects on a global scale" (Friedman (1994), p. 204). It is doubtful, however, that strong globalization could be realized in the Thai case or other cases similar to it, since that would require that subjects in these local cultures identify themselves with global subjects. But the notion of global subjects, i.e., those whose preferences, belief systems, etc. are the same throughout no matter where they live, seems suspect because to share preferences and belief systems deeply enough would seem to mean that these subjects are embedded in the same narrative and history, which would make them local subjects instead.

14. Thanks to Decha Tangseefah for pointing this out to me.

15. Walzer (1994), pp. 1-19.

16. A good source on this is of course Taylor (1975), especially pp. 365-388. The source of Hegel's criticism is Hegel (1967) and (1991).

References

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Soraj Hongladarom, 1998. "Global Culture, Local Cultures and the Internet: The Thai Example," In: Charles Ess and Fay Sudweeks (editors). Proceedings of the First International Conference on Cultural Attitudes Toward Technology and Communication (1-3 August). London: Science Museum, London, pp. 187-201.

Soraj Hongladarom, 1999a. "Science, Civil Society, and Thai Culture," Paper presented at the Seventh International Conference on Thai Studies, University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, 4-9 July 1999.

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Editorial history

Paper received 9 June 2000; accepted 4 July 2000.


Contents Index

Copyright ©2000, First Monday

Negotiating the Global and the Local: How Thai Culture Co-opts the Internet by Soraj Hongladarom
First Monday, volume 5, number 8 (August 2000),
URL: http://firstmonday.org/issues/issue5_8/hongladarom/index.html





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