Glocalization and ICT: Presuppositions, Tensions and Ethical Possibilities

Mari M. Heltne, Anne H. King


This essay seeks to address the theme of the conference from two our areas of specialization. Mari Heltne is concerned with ICT itself and methodologies of presenting it to students of multicultural background versus those of a homogeneous background. Anne King is primarily interested in the questions of ethical reflection centering upon the origins and future of ethical normative discourse and the meaning this has for teaching and student’s lives. Together we have been working on the meaning of “computer ethics” and its implications; we have written a paper together, and will teach a class of honors students this academic year on this subject.

In the first part of this essay, we will endeavor to evaluate the term “glocalization” itself. Is it, as some would suggest, a type of globalization that exists and is impossible to resist, as a movement? While the term itself has only been in use for a fairly short time, it is undeniably a process that is taking place. Or are we to understand “glocalization” as a dual movement, where the attempt is to apply the local to the global and the converse? One might argue that this is the very source of the term, which originated from its use in Japanese business practices that sought to combine global markets with local markets. This usage can be employed in different ways, and at time can overlook significant omissions about what “local” means:

The competition between the Americanized E-Mart and the American Wal-Mart is unlikely to bring up the issue of glocalization just because E-Mart is a Korean retailer. In fact, it is just a fierce fight between the Americanized companies. Everybody seems to be so busy relating this issue to glocalization that they forget about the falling traditional “sijang’’ or market places of Korea. (The Korea Times, 26 July 2006)

Is it instead of either of the above, a herald of a new, non-hierarchical and non-dogmatic future? Some advocates of glocalization see it as a way to promote peace in local and global communities. This is succinctly summed up as follows: “glocalization: a new route to world peace?” (Deutsche Presse-Agentur, May 19, 2003.) Others have noted that it is equally possible that ICT could bring a new kind of totalitarianism instead of peace and equality. The assumption that one set of values might be better than another is a question for ethical reflection.

Danah Boyd, in her discussion of the design process in programming, has suggested rather provocatively that

‘glocalization’ [is] one of the most grotesque words that academics have managed to coin. . . . Glocalization is the ugliness that ensues when the global and local are shoved uncomfortably into the same concept. (Boyd, O’Reilly Emerging Technology Conference, March 6, 2006)

Many advocates of glocalization do not share the impression of “ugliness” that Boyd regards as a clearly questionable juxtaposition of terms and concepts. As in many attempts to discuss the ethics of ICT, whether it be computer ethics broadly defined, or in the specific definition of ethics such as Floridi’s “objective realism” as he defines information ethics, it is crucial when looking at the past and the future to analyze what is the presupposition of each speaker when using ethical terminology and the purpose to which it is put.

The second part of this essay will be devoted to the question of whether or not ethics can be “glocalized,” and, if so, in what sense this can be accepted as a valid argument grappling with the language of ethics and norms. There have been those who suggest, such as Donald Gotterbarn, that the language of philosophers has nothing significant to add to the development of a computer ethics. However, the teaching of theology and ethics has led at least one of us to conclude that one of the primary things lacking in a globally connected technological society is often an conscious awareness of what is considered acceptable “locally.” Groups identify themselves according to shared structures of meaning, whether they are religious or non-religious in origin. Thus, this section will concentrate upon the meaning that “local” and “global” have in ethical and normative discourse. This is not an abstraction; it emerges directly from the experience that norms can be assumed in life — and in academia — rather than explicitly considered. It has been suggested that new set of values and norms are emerging from ICT itself. Ethical considerations need not be stagnant but are in the process of evolving. It is not merely accidental that Ronald Robertson, the sociologist who first coined the term “glocalization” in English, studied theory, culture, and religion in a sociological perspective. It is vital to consider ethical norms to have any coherent idea of “computer ethics” in an applied form, or as a professional set of guidelines.

The third part of this essay will address the “digital divide” and the “have” and have-nots” in the ICT revolution from a perspective of the meaning of justice, ethically as well as socially. We will also consider the very real technological inequities that currently exist in the world. These are complex issues, which include whether or not the revolution in information systems and technology is one that separates groups rather than unites them in a global community. Additionally, the openness of each local group or culture to ICT must also be taken into consideration. “Local” cultures come from a set of values, a history, and a shared identity that may be formed and yet go unrecognized. It is through this lens that the “local” community views the “global” community.

In the final part of this essay we will draw upon the previous sections, coming to some definite conclusions about glocalization and computer ethics; however, we also will unapologetically raise questions that continue to remain unanswered for the present, bearing in mind that sometimes it is the questions that are as important as the “answers.”