CP, Jacques Boissinot/AP
Quebec Premier Bernard Landry, center,
is joined by
Inuit kids as he walks
outside a school in Tasiujaq (AP)

Is the Internet a Cultural Boon or Burden?

September 01, 2008 07:00 AM
by Sarah Amandolare
The Inuit community’s Internet use stirs debate over the effectiveness of online learning and the Web’s impact on cultural output.

Joining Old and New Online

A remote Inuit community on the northern Coast of Canada is using the Internet to its advantage, teaching traditional customs to young people, while at the same time connecting with modern culture.

According to NPR, when the Internet came to Arctic By in 2000, elders worried that “their own culture of hunting and gathering and community was losing ground” to popular culture.

In response, local educators obtained a grant for multimedia programs, such as video equipment, that enable Inuit kids and teens to share their culture online. The kids have taped local news and made Inuit rap videos that reference traditional culture, and posted the content on YouTube.

Arctic Bay is one of many places around the world to have successfully used the Internet as a vessel for traditional culture. For example, the New York Times reported in 2001 on the influence of Viatru, a Seattle-based company that provides an online marketplace for traditional handicrafts made by indigenous craftspeople in Anchorage, Alaska.

Michelle Long, Viatru’s founder, said, “We believe that through the Internet we can preserve culture by rewarding sustainable cultural practices and by creating a global market for them—a digital dividend.”

However, others wonder whether the Internet is a burden, rather than a boon to culture.

In an August 2008 column in The Wall Street Journal, Elizabeth Lee Wurtzel blamed the Internet, specifically digital downloading, for the death of the music industry, and for the decline in America’s “imaginative inventions, our artistic output.”

Daily Standard columnist Andrew Keen took criticism of the Web a step further in 2006, questioning whether Web 2.0 poses consequences that “are inherently dangerous for the vitality of culture and the arts.” Keen sees Web 2.0 technology as excessively personalized, reflecting “ourselves rather than the world around us.”

But Keen’s sense that a “creeping narcissism” pervades Web 2.0 seems to be a shaky argument. Despite the prolificacy of shoddy personal blogs and Web sites, there are a small, but growing number of respectable citizen journalism portals, such as All Voices, that allow a passionate public to engage in global news.

Background: Arctic Bay an example of effective online learning

Close to 80 percent of Arctic Bay homes pay for monthly Internet access, and use e-mail and Skype regularly. The Web has brought together the village’s elders and the younger generation who teach each other, respectively, about traditional culture and modern technology.

Arctic Bay adult educator Ron Elliott said, “Inuit people are very visual and hands-on, so multimedia is a perfect teaching tool.”

The successful use of Internet technology in Arctic Bay classrooms underscores the ongoing debate over the effectiveness and quality of online learning.

Critics have dismissed online reading and study practices as incomplete educational experiences, favoring only portions of work, rather than the entirety. But proponents of Internet learning maintain that reading texts online lends an all-encompassing understanding, as students can consult a variety of resources on the same subject.

Video: Inuit Rap

Related Topic: Indigenous cultures online

Opinion & Analysis: Debating the effects of the Web


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