Cultural imperialism via product design

15 June 2020
15 Jun 2020

Here’s a thing most Americans don’t think about.

When American companies export their product or build a global digital product, they design American cultural norms into it. And in that act of exporting it globally, the culture is being exported alongside the product or user expereince. To use it, the customer must subscribe at some level to that culture baked into the product design.

I think this is a little-understood part of every export/import relationship. Cultural norms are designed into products, consciously or not. And using it requires being aware of, or being privy to, the culture, the value, and the mindset of the designers. Things like “followers”, the concept of direct-messaging your boss, reacting with emoji, connotations around the word “love” and the heart symbol, and so on… these are all norms and idioms that differ across cultures, and are baked into the product in a way where using it requires buying into the norms.

The Valley’s Manifest Destiny

In this way, the United States’ heavy digital export feels at times a bit like some kind of a weird capitalistic software-driven cultural imperialism. “To use our technology, you need to do it through our interface, which means adopting to our cultural norms and worldviews.” Whether those cultural norms and worldviews actually benefit the world, or even whether they have any merit, is a question cast aside by the inalienable notion of Manifest Destiny that Silicon Valley, as progressive as it is, still holds on to in 2020.

Culture in places that adopt these products changes subtly and irrevocably over time in a way that’s harder to notice and counteract. People do it so willingly and it permeates life in a way top-down control doesn’t. It’s the most effective form of cultural export, and Silicon Valley is winning in this guerrilla warfare of culture.

I always feel this when I visit EU / Korea. The American cultural influence via software dominance is crushing. And to me, it’s one of the best arguments for not just individual diversity, but cultural / national diversity in the companies and infrastructure that runs tech on our planet. In technological progress, as in capitalistic markets, monopolies and monocultures are harmful.

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