Saturday, December 30, 2006

Technology: You is fat and xenophobic

Via an interesting blogpost by Ethan Zuckerman I found this cartoon by Rob Rogers It refers to the fact that 'You' were selected as the person of the year 2006 by Time.

Besides the fact that the cartoon is very funny, it points to an important fact which is that the new technologies enable communication in new ways and changes access to information, but it depends on what you do with that possibilities whether it has a positive or negative change effect on the world. So it would probably have been more interesting if they had pointed to some people (or groups of people) who have been able to contribute to important changes through the use of new internet technologies. (like ME :))...

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Virtual and real stereotypes

Via the Internet Time Blog I found where you can play with your pictures. I decided to turn myself into a man (wasn't very hard) because some people who meet me online without seeing my picture, think I'm a man (the name Joitske is a strange name anyhow even in the Netherlands, could go for a man and woman). Somehow it feels like a compliment :).

Since I meet people online without knowing them face-to-face (or even without seeing their pictures) I am intrigued by how the experience changes when you do meet them. I had online exchanges without picture, where the picture is almost shockingly weird. Unconsciously, you do seem to create some sort of image (never really consciously). In some cases, I had online exchanges and when meeting the person, the person was different from my expectations. Either taking up more space (more dominant?) or on the contrary less space (softer?) than in my online experiences. Discovering that a person was from Jamaica with rasta hair seemed less distracting than finding out that her appearance was very gentle and easy-going (unlike the picture I had formed in my mind based upon the online communication).

Working online with pictures helps in my opinion, to form a completer idea of a person, but even when you are used to the pictures the face-to-face experience may be different. It takes some time to adjust to this 'new picture'. In one case, it was as simple as assuming that the person was very young since she was studying, whereas she was much older.

So it seems I have stereotypes at work in both cases. Sometimes it is argued that online communication is more straightforward because we are not distracted by physical clues, I wonder actually whether this is true. I think even online we do bring our own prejudices and do judge people from their communication, based on our previous experiences. A face-to-face experience may actually help to understand a person and his/her way of communicating better. What I do really appreciate online is that there is almost unlimited space. Face-to-face meeting are so time-limited that a lot of things people could say remain unspoken.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Patience as a new cultural dimension?

I went to Ghana just before Christmas like last year (see picture). Unfortunately it didn't work out as smooth as last year... (so bad that I don't even have pictures of this trip)

During the flight from Amsterdam to Accra I noticed I had an infection in my left foot, which became more and more red and swollen. So when I landed, my friend Mary came to pick me from the airport and we decided to drop my suitcase in the hotel and go straight to see a doctor. While waiting for the doctor in the clinic, Mary received a phone call from the airport that I took the wrong suitcase. First I couldn't believe it (it was my own green suitcase!) but then I realized that he could only have her number because it is written on my suitcase. They asked us to come as soon as possible and bring the suitcase back because its owner still had to travel to Kumasi. Since we were at the doctor's, we couldn't make it till 22.00 in the evening (the plane had landed at 19.00). When we arrived at the airport, the owner (a Ghanaian) was very friendly, laughing that the suitcases were indeed very similar. When I apologized, he said it was understandable because of the problem with my foot... I couldn't believe his reaction, as I had expected an angry person, or at least someone who is very annoyed for having to wait 3 hours!

So even though I can hardly generalize that all Ghanaians score high on patience I'm wondering if Geert Hofstede has captured this as one of his cultural dimensions. I see it as a varying degree of let go of control of a situation and accepting things the way they are. Does it fall under one of the five cultural dimensions like long-term orientation (see below; copied from his site)?:

Power Distance Index (PDI) that is the extent to which the less powerful members of organizations and institutions (like the family) accept and expect that power is distributed unequally. This represents inequality (more versus less), but defined from below, not from above. It suggests that a society's level of inequality is endorsed by the followers as much as by the leaders. Power and inequality, of course, are extremely fundamental facts of any society and anybody with some international experience will be aware that 'all societies are unequal, but some are more unequal than others'.

Individualism (IDV) on the one side versus its opposite, collectivism, that is the degree to which individuals are inte-grated into groups. On the individualist side we find societies in which the ties between individuals are loose: everyone is expected to look after him/herself and his/her immediate family. On the collectivist side, we find societies in which people from birth onwards are integrated into strong, cohesive in-groups, often extended families (with uncles, aunts and grandparents) which continue protecting them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty. The word 'collectivism' in this sense has no political meaning: it refers to the group, not to the state. Again, the issue addressed by this dimension is an extremely fundamental one, regarding all societies in the world.

Masculinity (MAS) versus its opposite, femininity, refers to the distribution of roles between the genders which is another fundamental issue for any society to which a range of solutions are found. The IBM studies revealed that (a) women's values differ less among societies than men's values; (b) men's values from one country to another contain a dimension from very assertive and competitive and maximally different from women's values on the one side, to modest and caring and similar to women's values on the other. The assertive pole has been called 'masculine' and the modest, caring pole 'feminine'. The women in feminine countries have the same modest, caring values as the men; in the masculine countries they are somewhat assertive and competitive, but not as much as the men, so that these countries show a gap between men's values and women's values.

Uncertainty Avoidance Index (UAI) deals with a society's tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity; it ultimately refers to man's search for Truth. It indicates to what extent a culture programs its members to feel either uncomfortable or comfortable in unstructured situations. Unstructured situations are novel, unknown, surprising, different from usual. Uncertainty avoiding cultures try to minimize the possibility of such situations by strict laws and rules, safety and security measures, and on the philosophical and religious level by a belief in absolute Truth; 'there can only be one Truth and we have it'. People in uncertainty avoiding countries are also more emotional, and motivated by inner nervous energy. The opposite type, uncertainty accepting cultures, are more tolerant of opinions different from what they are used to; they try to have as few rules as possible, and on the philosophical and religious level they are relativist and allow many currents to flow side by side. People within these cultures are more phlegmatic and contemplative, and not expected by their environment to express emotions.

Long-Term Orientation (LTO) versus short-term orientation: this fifth dimension was found in a study among students in 23 countries around the world, using a questionnaire designed by Chinese scholars It can be said to deal with Virtue regardless of Truth. Values associated with Long Term Orientation are thrift and perseverance; values associated with Short Term Orientation are respect for tradition, fulfilling social obligations, and protecting one's 'face'. Both the positively and the negatively rated values of this dimension are found in the teachings of Confucius, the most influential Chinese philosopher who lived around 500 B.C.; however, the dimension also applies to countries without a Confucian heritage.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Communities of practice during the Global Development Learning Forum

Erik Johnson facilitated a session on communities of practice during the Global Development Learning Forum in Washington. Even though I was invited, I couldn't make it.

So I decided to interview Erik:

1. What was the objective of your session on CoPs, facilitated with Paul Starkey, during the GDLN World Forum?
Paul and I were aiming to stimulate some thinking as to how GDLN-affiliated Distance Learning Centers (DLCs) could use CoPs as a part of their work. The idea was that they could either support them as a part of their learning activities, or perhaps even provide technical assistance in supporting CoP work. So, we presented the participants with some of the concepts behind CoPs and networks, lessons from previous experience and some examples.

2. How many people attended it, and what was their background?
We had two separate sessions, but with pretty modest participation. There were several parallel sessions with tough competition. But as a result of the small group size, we had very lively discussions. I believe we had maybe 12 people in all. They were mostly the staff of DLCs from places such as Afghanistan, Japan and Peru, as well as a couple of World Bank staff and representatives of the British Council.

3. What were the most compelling questions by the participants?
As expected, many of the questions focused on ways in which CoPs could help distance learning centers to be sustainable. The whole Forum was aimed at providing GDLN affiliates with ideas on how to run successful distance learning centers. So, it was interesting to discuss the "communities" of people that some of the centers were serving such as small business entrepreneurs (in Peru) and development partners in Afghanistan. Instead of thinking of clients as "target audiences", we discussed them as "communities". In this way, we focused on how to motivate learning in these groups. Since the term "audience" implies one-way communication, the multidimensional interaction which takes place in communities/networks is something very different to support. The participants seemed quite interested in exploring this.

4. Why do you think CoPs are important for development?
Human capacity is the one essential ingredient to development. I don't think that we would talk about something called development unless we were interested in developing ourselves, in living healthier, more prosperous lives. CoPs are a potent tool for us to develop our skills and competencies, to feel better about our jobs. They are entities that we have been making use of all of our professional lives, but now that we have begun to examine them and try to enhance their effectiveness, they will increasingly become important development tools. It's easy to get hung up on terminology like the difference between a CoP and a network, but in the end, these are structures which allow us to learn from each other. And with this learning comes better development programs, policies and... yes, practices.

Thank you, Erik!

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Sinterklaas culture

Today is Sinterklaas! I went to see him at the school of my children and we'll celebrate it with presents and poems this afternoon. Last year I have been

Originally uploaded by joitske.

boring you with several blogposts, this year only once!

In the newspaper, people wrote about Sinterklaas as the ultimate expression of fantasy and play: a whole country doing its best to make children believe Sinterklaas arrives by boat from Spain... There is also a nice turn-around of hierarchy, the mayor of the city where he arrives, has to receive Sinterklaas with regards. Maybe that's the part I like, that everyone for 2-3 weeks is busy with a person that doesn't even exist.. (Sttt!) There is a special daily news edition of sinterklaas on television and internet for instance.

Last year I talked to people who had not been born in the Netherlands and felt discriminated because Zwarte Piet is the helper of the White Sinterklaas. It seems to me that it is hard for an outsider to really feel and grasp what Sinterklaas is about, if you haven't experienced it as a child. From the outside it may definitely look discriminating or even slightly racist. I don't experience that at all, my children are convinced zwarte piet are white people, but black because of going through the chimneys.

I will upload a Sinterklaas song on my playlist (you can find it on the right side), if anyone want to hear a sinterklaas song in Dutch. Still can't upload pictures to my blogposts but I found a workaround by blogging the pictures straight from flickr.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Technology frustrations

My first frustration was with skype: suddenly my volume was very low. For 2-3 weeks, I tried hard to follow all kind of conversations, but it sounded like very far away, extremely frustrating. I realised how dependent and accustomed I have become on skype. We even cancelled one meeting, though I proposed to continue with text-only, others were not comfortable with that. For groups of people at least, setting up phone teleconferences is not as easy, and I missed the collaborative note-taking that's easy in skype. When I had the same problem with an Interwise supported teleconference, I decided that I had to solve this. After a long search (I thought it was a software problem, but my husband found out it had to be my headset) I was happy that this was solved.

Then I had a serious problem with microsoft Word, at times Word gave an error while saving the file, and at times the whole file was lost. I kind of tried to ignore this problem again, using a google document to avoid loosing my work, or even seeking refuge at other computers. After trying to reduce space, reloading the program, etc. through google we found out that it was probably caused by the anti-virus program Windows Live Onecare, which I had downloaded as trial version. And surprise, surprise, when I turned off the anti-virus, the problem was gone!!

I feel a little stupid about these frustrations, as I lived for 3 years in Ke-Macina in Mali and did not even have telephone, but wasn't frustrated. The thing seems to be that you grow used to a certain use of technology and get frustrated when it fails. Typing Ke-Macina, I remember someone who lived in a town with electricity tell me how frustrating it was to have a fridge and then experience the electricity failures. Whereas we did not have electricity and hence had an oil-fridge. So the more we get used to technologies and certain uses of technologies, the more we can also be frustrated when it doesn't work. So far so good I removed windows live onecare.

And now I can't add an image to this blogpost. Grre&$st.