Cultural Forecasting

QZ Next Billion Conference

I recently attended Quartz’s Next Billion forum, a gathering of global business leaders who will be directly affected by the rest of the world coming online.

As a designer in the digital arena and a lover of culture, I was particularly interested in how this future was presented: How will cultures mix on these platforms? Will they unify? Will a completely separate locationally independent culture emerge? How will design enable or challenge these progressions?

While the answers to these questions weren’t described in detail, the persistent, underlying theme of technology being a democratizing force that directly connects disparate cultures started to hint at a direction.

Languages die fortnightly. Language isn’t the same as a culture, but it is a fundamental piece; it defines how its users perceive and define the world. As a native English speaker, the Internet has—to date—been built for me. As new groups of people come online, however, this has started to change. For example, when I view trending photos on Instagram, I see many comments and posts written exclusively in foreign languages. These posts, alien to some readers, are something of a cultural tease—a reminder that there is a very active segment of the world from which many are completely excluded.

This is a window into other worlds. It’s an encounter that’s so much more alive and vibrant than stock images in a text book or descriptions of a disgruntled ex-pat or a wishful poseur teacher—and it’s possible because of technology.

How people react to these encounters is key, however. Do people see them and simply get upset or jealous from being out of the loop? Do the authors get written off because their posts aren’t in the reader’s native tongue? Is curiosity piqued and fostered? These outcomes can be (and are) influenced by design.

Facebook’s model is to be a “perfect empty vessel,” to be culturally agnostic. But that isn’t for everyone. The mere fact that Facebook is limited to a digital interface and requires written language already biases certain cultures.

Cultural nuances like these affect users’ perception of the technology and the cultures the technology uncovers. These are the qualities that thoughtful designers and businesses must be aware of; technology cannot be everything to everyone. While user research and open minds can help craft culturally accommodating digital technology, it will inevitably fail in some cases.

With the prevalence of technology and the finitude of the human mind, these failures will drive people to do what we’ve been doing for eons: adapt. New, salient, geo-agnostic subcultures will define audiences just as clearly as national borders used to. At a high level, these cultures will be distinct from any current culture. To the individual participating, they won’t even know the differences. This is a brave, new world we are entering. This democratizing force is both empowering and disabling, and is going to be a challenge in and of itself.