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Cultural Meanings in Software, City Spaces, and Estonian Society

The next session is kicked off by Jose Abdelnour Nocera, on the politics of technology culture. He notes that information technology has globalised, and has become increasingly affordable to small and medium enterprises. However, this also means that technology produced in one culture may be used in another, leading to a potential for intercultural misunderstandings. Users' cultural frameworks configure their understandings of the systems used, and these are likely to be different from those of the technology producers.

Interpretative flexibility is a key concept in theories of the social construction of technology: the character of technologies is not determined by their technological structure. The usefulness of a system, then, can be described as a social construct - and this is very different from the idea of usefulness as simply indicating (perceived) enhanced performance, or of usefulness as 'practical acceptability' rather than 'social acceptability'. Users 'construct' technology both symbolically in their reading of artefacts as well as literally in the articulation work that is essential before a generic software product can be used as an artefact supporting day-to-day business practices.

Using systems in this way is an intercultural encounter, then, and presents certain problems. How are the perspectives and needs of users represented and configured by producers - and how do users redefine the usefulness of business systems and configure the producers of these systems? This can be examined through the use of technological frames: comprising all elements that influence the interactions within relevant social groups and lead to the attribution of meaning to technical artefacts, and thus to constituting technology - or alternatively, a set of assumptions, expectations, and knowledge of technology collectively held by a group. Such frames both consider the constructionist and semiotic processes in the social construction of technology. Technological frames combine goals for technology use, problems of use, elements of the interpretation of the technology, elements of practice leading to the attribution of meaning to the technology, and strategies for coping with breakdowns.

This study focussed on the Bizware software produced by the software company Elsoft, and how it was used in Indonesia, Spain, Hong Kong, and the UK. Developers of Bizware focussed on creating a fast and efficient data processing technology, while users wanted a system that supported and automated their business activities with the least amount of effort. Developers mainly wanted to keep their software bug-free, while users mainly worried about the suitability; developers wanted a universal, technically centred solution, while users were more interested in user-friendliness ('transaction speed' for users meant speed of working with the system, not data processing speed as it did for developers). Similarly, organisational cultures and models differed between users and developers - while users in Indonesia wanted to hide stock prices from warehouse operators, this was difficult to understand for the developers in the Netherlands where intercorporate relations may be organised rather differently. Bizware is meant to incorporate 'best business practices' - but what this means might be interpreted quite differently in different countries.

Breakdown coping strategies are 'attempts from the frame' to restore meaning and integrate that technology into the frame, then. This can happen in the form of complying with the 'script' embedded in the technology - a way for the user to allow themselves to be reconfigured. Alternatively, problem locus construction means relocating the source of problems from systems to people or vice versa. Ultimately, then, there is a politics of technology culture, and technological frames give an account of the power dynamics involved in the co-configuration of people and technology; workarounds can be seen as a form of cultural resistance in this context. There is also semiotic power by which the producer of the software can impose a preferred way in which companies should be run. A greater awareness of technological frames can help identify and deal with such power relations.

Cultural Tendencies in Today's Estonia

Maarja Lõhus is the next presenter, with a survey of Estonians' cultural activities. Culture is often divided into a number of different strata from high to low culture, but Bourdieu also sees culture as a dynamic enironment in which participants relate to each other through mutual symbolic differentiation - this is not hierarchical in nature, then. Overall, culture can be described as an identity building system (and this follows Juri Lottman's work).

The present study investigated Estonians' cultural engagement - 22% engaged in an active and versatile way; 25% engaged instrumentally, focussing on tense (perhaps meaning 'narrow'?) experience relationships; 19% had a traditional, close-to-life relationship with culture; for 14% their relationship was focussed on pop culture; and for 20% the relationship was passive and remote. This can also be linked to other patterns of interest (such as more specific media and cultural consumption patterns, and political and societal interests), as well as to sociographic information - for example, men were more likely to engage with culture instrumentally, women had more traditional cultural preferences; more highly educated people were more actively involved in culture; and younger people had more pop-culturally oriented interests and/or showed a more instrumental engagement with culture (indeed, instrumentally engaged groups and those interested in pop culture showed some strong similarities).

Further, it can also be said that those engaging actively have higher levels of social and cultural capital, while those engaging instrumentally or mainly with pop culture were stronger on the level of economic capital - those engaging only remotely scored poorly on all three levels. There is therefore an emergent general structure connecting cultural engagement and other socioeconomic factors which appears to be in evidence n Estonian society, and these patterns show a certain degree of conservativism, especially in regard to gender and age differences (where cultural activities of men and women as well as of old and young differed considerably), but also between professional and other groups. Given the fast development of Estonian post-independence culture, it will be very interesting to compare these findings to similar studies to be conducted in the future - but comparisons with similar studies in Sweden and elsewhere already show that findings there are similar, so vast cultural differences seem unlikely to emerge.

Ante- and Post-Factum Discussions of City Spaces

Andreas Kõnno is next, asking how mediated space makes sense. How we talk and think about space in public and private is different, and mediatedness is a criterion of publicness - indeed, mediated space is public space. To ask about the meaning of mediated space is to pose a question about public space as a consumable commodity, perhaps like any other good. Space may be a material reality - a physical space - or a category - a kind of mental entity (a Habermasian public sphere, for example). Abstract spaces can always be reified as particular spaces, and in this sense mental and real are related to each other in the same way that general and particular are; having views and opinions about public spaces can be considered even obligatory - there is no neutral point of view when talking about how 'they' or 'we' are using 'our' space. Communication over public spaces is then a commodity like any other type of commodity - it has a consumption value like the real space itself.

But what kind of merchandise is such communication - is it more like tangible or intangible commodities? It is important to distinguish here between topics and functions of communication; this corresponds to an other-reference/self-reference function. Using this distinction, the observer (e.g. the mass media) gains freedom in their choice of topic and above all in leaving out information (this is following Niklas Luhmann). There is a schema for the entering of topics into social reality here - from immediate to mediated reality.

Our life environment has to have a function to carry in the media system, in order to get noticed as a public matter. What could this be - and can an average person participate in the development of this environment? A study of how city space is communicated in the mass media can provide an answer here - both in terms of ante-factum communication (focussing on society as a process), and post-factum communication (depicting society as a product). Ante-factum here represents communicators' self-reference, and is virtual in nature, while post-factum communication represents their other-reference. Together these forms of communication form a kind of reference system for society, and both can be examined through the study of public communication.

The Estonian mediascape has recently shown some remarkable discussions on the nature of city space, for example in the form of political advertising. Such advertising was prohibited before the elections, but the Centre Party worked around this by advertising a 'K-brand' meat product using similar iconography to their party logo, which generated a great deal of discussion. Post-factum discussion in the mainstream media about this scandal was much larger than general discussion about the advertising prohibition. However, discussions around the placement of the Freedom Monument and the Freedom Clock in Tallinn showed a strong preference for ante-factum disucssion - this may indicate that discussions around historical issues are perhaps carried out more frequently post-factum, while more general discussion around issues of city space are more strongly focussed on ante-factum discussion.

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