Tech users worldwide bring their cultural biases to the use of new technologies. Even product safety standards are largely based on a nation or region’s reigning sociocultural values. For global companies—what firm isn’t, what with the Internet, FedEx, and consumer electronics with components from different continents?—understanding these cultural issues is essential. Working toward that understanding along with a growing number of consumer-tech firms are researchers, anthropologists, and (yes) philosophers.
Formed from culture and tradition, a people’s collective mental model defines everything, including color. In China, black borders mean a pictured person is deceased, so the first digital photo frames with thick black bezels—as on the original plasma displays—did not do well there. (White has other issues.) Everything from design and production through marketing and sales must pass the culture test, lest a product fail because people don’t “get it”—or worse, because something is silly or offensive. The classic, possibly apocryphal example? Citroën sold few cars in Holland because its name in Dutch means “lemon.”
IBM, True Blue Trailblazer
Making sure to consider all “society-based cultural factors…in the design of technology” is difficult, according to Geert Hofstede. Hofstede first studied, then strategized the international spread of IBM’s business in the 1960s and 1970s, back when “computer rental” meant paying by the hour to use what was essentially a refrigerator-sized tape deck (with no spell-check). At least IBM’s management team was smart enough to put even smarter academic researchers on the job. Hofstede developed the landmark four dimensional framework for adapting technology to particular cultures (later upped to six dimensions with long-term orientation and indulgence).
Writing in 1980, Hofstede posited four adversarial principles at work across human cultures:
- Weak vs. strong uncertainty avoidance. Some cultures, such as Greece and Japan, place great importance on avoiding ambiguity, especially in interpersonal relations. This explains the Japanese preference for video-calls, which they make in the billions on every phone, PC, and tablet available. Video-calls require being seen, but also positively ID the caller. In Scandinavia and Hong Kong, on the other hand, more ambiguity is tolerated and video-calls are less numerous.
- Individualism vs. collectivism. The UK and U.S. cultures idealize self-sufficiency and independence, whereas Venezuela and Colombia are proudly collectivist. While people use laptops in the U.S. for a variety of personal and/or corporate reasons, a marketing campaign in Colombia would focus on group collaboration. Traits such as confidence and creativity develop in individualist cultures, while cooperation and conformity are strongly encouraged in collectivist ones.
- Small vs. large power distance. A large “power distance” exists in cultures like India and the Philippines, where the privileged classes use all the latest tech while the powerless remain “unplugged” on the bottom rung of the socioeconomic ladder. Austria, Sweden, and other Western nations—where high-tech devices are commodities that even “the poor” can afford—have “small” power distances.
- Masculinity vs. femininity. Cultures that are task-oriented, and emphasize material success, are called “masculine.” Ones that are people-oriented, and value quality of life? They’re “feminine.” Such previous markers as the American female’s mythical affinity for frilly pink things are in flux, however: Apple’s MacBook line now includes “girly” light-as-Air models that guys seem to like just fine.