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International Round Table Report

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Intercultural Dialogue and Digital Culture

Palace Hotel, Zagreb, Croatia, 20-21 November 2008

Final Report

The international round table entitled Intercultural Dialogue and Digital Culture was held from 20 to 21 November 2008 at the Hotel Palace, in Zagreb, Croatia. The event was organized by the Culturelink Network / Institute for International Relations (IMO) from Zagreb, Croatia, with the support of UNESCO-BRESCE, the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Croatia, and the Department for Culture Education and Sports of the City of Zagreb. The event gathered over forty participants – cultural researchers, cultural policy experts, representatives from cultural networks and cultural and new media practitioners from the EU, the Mediterranean and South East Europe, that discussed pertinent issues of possibilities which digital culture provides for intercultural dialogue.

In the name of the organizers, the round table was opened by Aleksandra Uzelac, who noted that this event was Culturelink's contribution to the 2008 - European Year of Intercultural Dialogue. Her opening words were followed by short speeches by representatives of the supporting organizations: Marie Paule Roudil from UNESCO-BRESCE, Nina Obuljen from the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Croatia, and Duško Ljuština on behalf of the City of Zagreb. They stressed their continued support to Culturelink's activities, and the importance of this topic for the understanding of the fundamental changes brought to us by the ICT and the opportunities they create for younger generations.

The round table was organized in four sessions; the first session focused on the topic Intercultural Dialogue – Path towards a Dynamic and Open Society. This session was introduced by Nada Švob-Đokić with a presentation entitled Intercultural Dialogue: An Introductory Remark, giving a short historical overview of the term intercultural dialogue from its origin in the second half of the 20th century, to its position in the current understanding of cultures and the wider social context. She noted that, in a global setting, we are more and more talking about the multiplicities of cultural dialogues, and the necessities to translate culture; and thus, we are moving from intercultural dialogue to intercultural multilogue. Švob-Đokić concluded that the future of intercultural dialogue depends on the overall global social setting, in which anthropological interpretations of culture are fading away and the establishment of new definitions of culture is based on their new, technologically and individually based diversification.

After this introductory overview of the theoretical concept of intercultural dialogue, a particular view into The Perception of Islam and Muslims in the Media and the Responsibility of European Muslims towards the Media was given by Mirza Mešić, Imam at the Zagreb Mosque. He spoke of prejudices that grow from both sides (Muslim and non-Muslim), which create obstacles for intercultural dialogue. He noted the emergence of islamophobia since 11 September, and the numerous media campaigns against the Islamic community by the western media, misrepresenting all Muslims as terrorists. He emphasized that reforms are necessary on both sides, and that dialogue is needed based on the respect for others. ICT facilitates this as it provides opportunities for the sharing of resources and for collaboration and communication across established borders of nations and communities.

Vesna Čopič offered another view of the problems of intercultural dialogue with her presentation on Intercultural Dialogue: The Gaps between Policy Papers and Policy Reality, in which she concentrated on the case of Slovenia. She noted that during the past several years there was a proliferation of research and policy papers that concentrated on intercultural dialogue (either on international or national levels), and culture was often used as a 'magic tool' that will solve all problems. The reality of policy doers is very different from the one of policy makers. Cultural policy research is weak, cultural statistics are unreliable, and a solid evaluation of cultural programmes is missing. Čopič advocates the necessity of good policy research infrastructure, for more debates on cultural policy issues, and education on cultural management.

The discussion that followed concentrated on the question of (cultural) identities from several perspectives. A question of identification issues of second and third generation of Muslims in Europe was raised - problems of identification are not only evident regarding Muslims in Europe, but also other religions which were 'used' by nationalisms so as to create or perpetuate conflict. In this context the digital culture was noted as an opportunity for the establishment of intercultural dialogue. Discussants noted that intercultural dialogue has to be rethought also as a class issue.

Aleksandra Uzelac opened the second session focused on Understanding Intercultural Dialogue in the Digital Age with her presentation entitled Digital Culture: Shared Space for Users-Citizens-Consumers. The presentation gave an overview on the concept of digital culture, viewing it from the perspective of a common resource for knowledge society and as a new ecology that conditions the experiences and opportunities of citizens today. The digital network environment has brought on new practices, possibilities and threats. Uzelac stressed the importance of the networked information economy and the networked public sphere, which provide a new context for culture and communication in today's society (Benkler). The latter one is a more engaging space, with the possibility for active citizenship through various participatory platforms,offering opportunities for intercultural communication. Aleksandra Uzelac concluded that it is important to build shared spaces, engage users in participation, build common knowledge resources, and script different forms of solidarity into the mainstream system.

Myriam Diocaretz contributed to the conceptual framework of intercultural dialogue in digital culture through her input on The Dialogical Being in the 21st Century. She began with the notion of the new area networks (nANs) of the individual in relation to ICT and new technology; and new ways of being and existing which also have an effect on one's 'culture', and thus, how we relate to the 'other', and to other 'cultures'. She noted how humans are becoming data and are increasingly used as data in different information systems. We are entering new zones of interaction, of expression and communication – the 'post-PC mode' of existence is already under way. There is a (new) relationship with technology that we need to acknowledge – the new boundaries of the 'Self', and of 'Being'. Diocaretz stresses the importance of the relationship of Being and Presence – in the technological but also in the philosophical sense. Being part of digital culture concerns not only the Human, but the non-Human; thus, intercultural dialogue also implies relations with technology. Therefore, we need to renew our understanding of intercultural dialogue in the digital age and policy making needs to address this change.

Rob van Kranenburg's presentation entitled From Intercultural to Interpersonal Dialogue concentrated on the analysis of communication in the context of the RFID (Radio Frequency Identification). RFID development is an important issue that is only dealt with in retail and similar businesses while it has a huge impact on all other areas, and thus on culture as well. He stated that a discussion on the new context it introduced is missing. The Internet blurred the borders between the real and the virtual, and emphasized the situation where humans and physical objects are becoming data and media objects that get communicated via communicational networks but not necessarily in a transparent fashion. The discussion on intercultural dialogue is moving more towards interpersonal dialogue mediated by communication technologies; and if this is to be so, than stories, narrativity, sense and suspense should be an integral part of the discourse of policy and calls for intercultural dialogue.

The session continued with the intriguing topic of From Boombox to iPod - How Intercultural Communication Has Turned from a Shout to a Whisper in the Digital World by Kelvin Smith, who noted that digital production and distribution made culture not only transient but also less communicative (not referential to anything but the person or immediate group). He claims we now moved from Boombox – 'listen to me' (shout) to iPod 'it's my business what I listen to' (whisper). For Smith, digital culture seems to exist in ghettos (poor) or gated (rich) communities, and is increasingly not geared to communication at all – but just 'tribe' reinforcement. Serendipity and chance encounters have diminished in such a closed culture –and Smith claims that they are valuable for intercultural dialogue and should not be dismissed. He also noted the danger of surveillance that has become a part of the (digital) culture. Thus, we have to be aware of the controlling of the channels of our communication, and the fact that surveillance has become a part of the context of intercultural dialogue. Intercultural communication in today's world of digital culture can be either loud or quiet (a shout or a whisper), and it can be shared both ways, Smith concluded.

Discussion after the second session revolved around three major topics; the first one involved the ethical questions that need to be addressed in relation to the human - non-human issue. These will become more important as phenomena such as avatars as role-models for young people emerge, etc. However, the human consciousness is such a vast unmarked territory; that human-human relationships are still unresolved and we are already jumping to robotics.

The second question revolved around the concept of the 'non-connected' and the 'disconnected', whereby the first term concerns those who, on the one hand, do not have means to IT access, and on the other do not wish to be connected by choice, which proves to be less possible each day, while the other category deals with the issue of control of the telecommunication companies – and their ability to disconnect users.

The discussion turned towards the significance of new generations for the future of digital culture – and what in this context the future of the 'old' media means – the future of books, periodicals, etc. The format of these media is changing and new business models are emerging. Sometimes the discussions between different generations become discussions between different cultures.

The third session dealt with a dilemma Digital Culture – Shared Space and Promoter for Intercultural Dialogue? It was opened by Colin Mercer with Things in Our Ears: From the Babel Fish to the iPhone and Beyond: Portable Cultures and Transnational Creativity. He continued with some of the notions from the previous session – i.e. the question of new young generations and their perception of digital culture. He noted how new technologies provide younger generations with so much new cultural content, which has not been experienced before. Mercer warns that we have to be aware of these changes when we are discussing cultural policy issues. Current cultural policies are restrictive and deal with a 19th century definition of culture. The issues of the new technologies bring about questions of privatization of culture, of locking down content, etc. It should, however, be noted that there is nothing inherently negative in digital technologies – they are just like the Babel Fish from Douglas Adams' Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy – a tool, and we should think about how it is used.

The next two presentations dealt with projects aimed at harnessing digital participation and building new spaces for dialogue. In this way, Katherine Watson presented some of the projects dealing with intercultural dialogue that are being developed inside the Lab for Culture, such as Open Lines to Intercultural Dialogue, Rainbow Paper and Victim's Symptom (the latter one curated by Ana Peraica). She stressed the difficulties of achieving online participation and asked for suggestions to help facilitate the use of Lab's tools, a powerful node of cultural communication.

The question of difficulties with online participation was also visible in Don Forresta's presentation, in which he gave an overview of the MARCEL network, that aims to be a permanent artists' network, with its own web. MARCEL has been developing for more than a decade, and during this timeframe its developers increasingly noted that old type of institutions are evidently becoming obsolete. They should be redefined for the profound change that has been brought on by the new digital culture.

Going back to the 'real' physical space, Gabriella Kardos presented the development of three contemporary art centres in Romania, in the cities of Baia Mare, Iasi and Constanta, that are part of a bigger real-estate investment project. These centres will feature, among their day-to-day business, exhibitions and performance activities, and a communication infrastructure that will enable projects in virtual environments as well. These centres will strive to collaborate with neighbouring countries, as well as with organizations and networks such as MARCEL and Lab for Culture. The idea is to transcend distance, immediate borders and to create a network as a strong base for communication and cultural exchange.

Filip Stojanovski spoke on Intercultural Dialogue, Civic Participation and Human Rights in the Digital Sphere, and used examples from Macedonia to point out the relation between the (lack of) digital content and the capacity to involve the citizens in intercultural dialogue in a post-conflict setting. Stojanovski noted that on websites from Macedonia there is an insignificant amount of content in local languages other than Macedonian. (The best-practice example in this stance is the National Broadcaster's website that provides information in ten languages). The government does not set a good example neither on this level, nor on the level of policies towards IT development and education. This should be changed in the near future. A pressing need for (new) digital content, as well as for educational eContent has been noted.

The discussion that followed concentrated on how to increase participation of users in the digital sphere. The participants noted that this has been one of the biggest obstacles concerning projects connecting intercultural dialogue and digital culture. There is a user overload (attention scarcity) and information overload - how to make users participate in 'your' project (out of all other possible projects) comes as a pressing issue. It was mentioned that only 1% of users of the web are active users, and that one possible solution may be working on already existing communities, that, when they grow further, produce enough activities. The second issue that was stressed, dealt with the change of the concept of intercultural dialogue: the definition of intercultural dialogue provided by the Council of Europe 25 years ago is not adequate for digital culture, which is fundamentally changing the way we are living. The view on culture and creativity shifts from the anthropological notions of culture, to a new view from a horizon of new technology. The digital divide and the problems of inclusion of the non-connected are still present.

The fourth and the last session dealt with the topic of Digital Culture Participatory Practices – Does the Cultural Sector Recognize the Current Trends as a Tool for Enabling Intercultural Dialogue? The session was opened with a dynamic presentation by Vuk Ćosić, entitled Culture, Vitality and Web Strategy, in which he provided an overview of projects and campaigns that he is involved in. He invited an intercultural dialogue in the digital culture, whose main lesson is that one has to go where ones users are.

Nenad Prelog continued this session with his presentation on Collaborative Media and 'Cultural Sector' – Friends or Strangers, starting with an interesting overview on the development of the web, all the way to Web 3.0 (that will provide the convergence of real life and virtual space). What should be highlighted is that these developments of Web (1.0, 2.0, 3.0…) are occurring simultaneously – one is not replacing the other. Prelog highlighted that cultural institutions need to have their own strategies for a web presence, as they are not the same as those of businesses. Search engines cannot answer complex questions, they provide data connected to the most popular items – which is not the type of information that cultural institutions primarily need. As an example, Prelog presented the results from web searches on some Croatian cultural and sports figures and their web statistics. He noted that social networks are an area where intercultural dialogue could flourish if used with this aim.

After this overview of the web development which took us to Web 3.0 and the semantic web, Tomislav Medak questioned: In the Cloud of Semantic Interactivity: How the Semantic Web Transforms the Intersubjective Production of Meaning and What Can the Social Web Do to Prevent It? Semantic webs have items described so that computers can relate them to others – best done with (social) graphs. The user-generated semantics coming from social software such as tagging, collaborative tools, microcontent, etc., allow the correlation of these (social) graphs. These correlations are about negotiating identities (intercultural dialogue as well), but more then ever, they are about negotiating meanings. Medak highlighted the dangers of the locking-in of data, of information, within walled-in social networks run by corporations. He advocated the practice of not using these walled-in services. In addition he called for participation in dialogical web, in the development of collaborative platforms for publishing, filtering and editing.

Kristian Lukić closed the presentation part of the fourth session with his input on Factories, Resources and Love – Virtual Worlds and Social Networking, in which he tackled the reach of the virtual into our daily lives. Questions of data ownership, of generating economic value of walled-in social networks are becoming pertinent issues. The new marketing of these new 'factories' is based on emotions, intimacy, and is concentrated on addiction marketing and loneliness economy.

The discussion after the last session revolved mainly around the dangers of technological determinism in this regard – the over-expectation that technology can bring more changes that it can. The future of culture is intrinsic to culture itself, and this should not be lost when talking about policies related to new technologies and digital culture. Intercultural dialogue can still be held everywhere in the physical sphere, but is welcome in the digital sphere, although the digital divide is still present.

The round table raised a plethora of issues that need to be taken into account while researching intercultural dialogue and digital culture. Parallel to 'real time' problems of intercultural dialogue, the digital sphere offers new opportunities for younger generations, and for new perspectives on intercultural dialogue. With the introduction of new technologies, the anthropological notions of culture are fading away, and thus, we are increasingly moving away from an intercultural towards an interpersonal dialogue. New generations, immersed in digital culture, are developing new ways of communication, identification, etc. There are more and more tools for citizen participation and for new ways of expression. In this regard, the questions of intercultural dialogue and digital culture open new problems of walled-in communities, of the digital divide, the relationship between humans and technology, the question of surveillance and thus, freedom. The cultural field needs to be rethought in the light of these changes, and researched from these new perspectives.

Jaka Primorac



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