Globalizing the local Greenland

Written by Morten Jonassen Read now | Comments

Imagine that you were kayaking along the coast of Greenland, and needed a chart to find your way … Why not jump on the Internet using your cell phone, and get the map that way? … But here is the problem. You probably can’t get cellular service where you are in your kayak. And even if you can, your battery is probably dead because it is so cold. Or, your phone won’t work because it is wet. Even if your mobile phone does work, and you have service, you probably can’t operate it because you can’t do so without taking your mittens off, and it is too cold to do so.

Buxton, 2007, p. 37

In this article I focus on the challenges of globalization in Greenland and the possibilities of applying relevant aspects of mobile communications theory justifying the deployment of cultural probes in Greenland. The situation in Greenland poses an array of different dilemmas in terms of IT solutions. Most challenging is the fact that mediated interaction in Greenland is not to be taken for granted. Globalization and the technology it brings have surely brought much pleasure for the individual, but problems arise when mediation reaches a critical mass. According to Ling (2012), ICT’s have become invincible and so common that they are now taken for granted – if someone does not have access to the communication technology, they become a burden to everyone else. This outlines one of the major problems of global IT in Greenland. In this paper, the challenges of mediated technology in Greenland are explored.

Globalization in the digital age 

In the first section I will substantiate prevalent theoretical theories of globalization, which will provide a solid foundation and grounding of the subsequent analysis and discussion. The purpose is to theorize the interconnected tensions between global factors, locality and the influencing role of information technology. 

A prerequisite of globalization is the concept of locality. Global flows and processes do not just originate globally; rather global flows originate locally and hereafter possibly exerting influences on the global. Therefore, the starting point of globalization theory should befittingly start with locality. But what exactly does locality entail?

In order to gain an understanding of locality I turn to Appadurai’s views on the dimensions of globalization and the production of locality. Locality is for Appadurai (1996) “a phenomenological property of social life, a structure of feeling that is produced by particular forms of intentional activity and that yields particular sorts of material effects” (p. 182). Locality can therefore be considered as a type of social process, which requires agency and purpose. This ‘structure of feeling’ cannot be separated from the setting where social life occurs i.e. the neighborhood. Neighborhoods refer to existing virtual or spatial communities, with existing social forms, in which locality is realized. Traditionally, neighborhoods have been reinforced by certain rituals, rites of passages and rules (p. 179). A neighborhood thus provides the setting for social interaction and provides a contextual generative dimension for the relationship between the local and the global. According to Stald (2009), the essential aspect of locality can be viewed by its distinct separation from other localities and its separation from the national level. The important point is the actual perception of the locality, which should be culturally, cohesive and historically relevant for the people who share it (p. 32-33).  Locality is however not an easy achievement, but a fragile social aspect, which must be maintained carefully against various kinds of odds even in the most confined or geographically isolated situations (Appadurai, 1996, p. 179). A main concern here is the production of locality, which is challenged by contemporary problems of deterritorialization, diasporas and transnationality. In particular, modern media plays a vital role in these challenges, “the steady erosion, principally due to the force of and form of electronic mediation, of the relationship between spatial and virtual neighborhoods” (Appadurai, 1996, p. 189). This special influence of electronic media touches upon a core element of understanding the tensions of global IT. More recently Appadurai’s views have however turned more neutral towards the effects of mediation: 

These technologies do offer new spaces and modes of building relationships and communities – even rebuilding the fabric of reality itself. While trying not to be mystified immediately by the claims of these technological forms, we must also avoid any built-in cynicism about what they might do or say. So – localities, virtuality and sociality, for me, would be the ‘anchor-points’ of a broad discussion about the new technologies of mediation, in their various applications.  

Morley & Others, 2011, p. 41

Whilst Appadurai is open towards a rather explorative method of approaching globalization, other scholars are much more critical.  Globalization can be regarded largely by the loss of centralized control mechanisms, characterized by ‘weak states’ or types of ‘no-man’s-lands’ where governing institutions have lost their previous powers (Bauman, 2001/2004, p. 47-56). A central element within Bauman’s theories of globalization is the direct consequence imposed by globalization itself, namely the concept of glocalization. The result of glocalization is a polarized world consisting of globalized and localized individuals, illustrated by a worldwide restratification process of the society, based upon freedom of movement and the lack of mobility (Bauman, 2001/2004). In glocalization, the globalized individuals have the opportunity to move around freely in the world, whilst the localized suffer from inferior possibilities and are tied to their place. Glocalization can thus be regarded as the distinction between the winners (the globalized) and the losers (the localized). Using the metaphor of tourists and vagabonds, Bauman (as cited by Davis, 2000) defines this distinction in the following manner:

The vagabond is the alter ego of the tourist, and the tourist’s most ardent admirer. Ask the vagabonds what sort of life they would wish to live given the chance and you will get a pretty accurate description of the tourist’s bliss. Vagabonds have no other images of good life. They have no alternative utopia, no political agenda of their own. The sole thing they want is to be allowed to be tourists—like the rest of us. (p. 23)  

This distinction is the direct result of the globalization and represents in part some of the unintended and unforeseen problems affecting everybody – globally or locally. A key issue here is the impact of mediated technology, “the distinction between far-away and close-by, or here and there, have been all but made null and void once transferred to the cyberspace and subjected to the online or on-air logic” (Bauman, 2011). Consequently, any mutual communication between the two separate poles has disappeared and is worsened by the disintegration of time and space, made possible by these technologies (Bauman, 2001/2004, p. 59). With mediated technologies, localized individuals are therefore doomed to watch idly by, whilst the rest of world goes on.

As the final part of this section I will assess the ‘alter ego approach’ to Bauman, namely the more proponent globalization views as offered by Urry. Contrasting the theories of traditional globalization, the mobilities paradigm breaks with the idea that intense social connections require close physical proximity. Using the airport as an example, Urry (2007) describes how these institutions, facilitated by digital technologies, contributes to the production of cultural communities, urbanism, and cosmopolitan identities.

Mobilities also includes movements of images and information on local, national, and global media. The concept embraces one-to-one communications such as the telegraph, fax, telephone, mobile phone, as well as many-to-many communications effected through networked and increasingly embedded computers … it involves examining how the transporting of people and the communicating of messages, information, and images increasingly converge and overlap through recent digitisation and extension of wireless infrastructures…

Sheller & Urry, 2006, p. 212

Based on the increasing movement and circulation of people and information (made possible by travel and ICT’s), the mobilities paradigm thus outlines how social connections are maintainable across large distances (Urry, 2007). The distinctions between the local/global are no longer essential since mobility entails “a broader theoretical project aimed at going beyond the imagery of ‘terrains’ as spatially fixed geographical containers for social processes. It calls into question scalar logics such as local/global as descriptors of regional extent” (Hannam, Sheller & Urry, 2006, p. 5). In order to understand the global flows, we must therefore acknowledge that the use of mediated technology does not impede social relations, but rather enhances the connection between individualized networks, “Mobilities thus entail distinct social spaces that orchestrate new forms of social life around such nodes…” (Sheller & Urry, 2006, p. 213). In contrast to the utopian aspects put forward by Bauman, the mobilities paradigm thus seeks to explore the positive consequences, which mediation technologies affords. 

This section has offered different and opposing perspectives and views regarding globalization and the influence imposed by mediated technology. This is an important first step towards understanding the processes entailed in global IT solutions, whether these are comparative or paradoxes. In the next section I will draw upon these theories in the analysis of the current situation in Greenland.  

Perspectives on Greenland

Greenland is a fascinating and challenging country in terms of digital communication technologies. Being the largest island in the world, mostly covered by vast icecaps, naturally creates barriers in the communication infrastructure. Internet access and mobile phone coverage, which we in Denmark take for granted, are services mainly limited to the larger cities in Greenland. The townships and settlements only have access to satellite services, which are slow and extremely expensive. The sole mobile provider of Greenland, TELE claims that 99% coverage is possible, but the outer districts in the north, and some in the south, do not have cell coverage (Rygaard, 2008, p. 264). As of 2012, only about half of the households in Greenland have access to the Internet (Rygaard, 2013, p. 165). This creates a problem for a country wanting to break the isolation and embracing what the outside world has to offer. In spite of the high prices, the use of ICT’s in the cities has been quite substantial, but there are problems, “The impact of modern media (film, television, video, and the internet) has played an essential role in the globalization process in Greenland, not least in the way in which today’s Greenlandic youth see themselves as citizens of the world” (Rygaard, 2008, p. 260).

The flow of information has mainly been one-way, “globalization has thus far primarily been a story of successfully embedding the global into the local” (Rygaard, 2008, p. 268). The historical media consumption in Greenland has been characterized mainly by American and Danish culture. The young people believe they know what goes on in the world, but the world on the other hand is rather ignorant in terms of Greenland. In this light one could argue that the Greenlanders have become glocalized. This is especially evident when considering the strong sense of locality, witnessed by a shortage of ambitions among the young people in Greenland. The young Greenlanders strongly value their spatial familiarity-connections and are generally non-demanding in their future wishes (Rygaard, 2008, p. 267). Essentially, they do not feel like inhabitants of the global village (Stald, 2009, p. 279), they just feel like Greenlanders. As Rygaard (2003) stated “…we can say that the majority are much more subjected to personal experiences than mediated experiences. Only very few have fantasies of becoming a member of a globalized elite…” (p. 304). This sounds like the typical trademarks of the vagabonds.  While this could be viewed as a positive facilitator in terms of “the production of locality”, this does not bode particularly well with strong wishes of attracting the attention of the outside world – and eventually becoming independent from the Danish block grant.

Another view put forward by Rygaard (2003), is the complete absence of globalization outside Nuuk i.e. in the outer districts of Greenland. Currently, in these outskirts of Greenland, neither globalization nor romantic notions of mobilities prevails.

In practice, the global flow in the outer districts is so insignificant and so spasmodic that the existing reality leaves much to be desired. Although the traffic between Greenland and the rest of the world is mainly one-way and chiefly conveys merchandise and some curlural flow, the inertia of the outer districs prevents the global ‘Goliath’ from dominating the local ‘David’.

Rygaard, 2003, p. 305

This is truly the manifestation of locality in the wild. As Rygaard (2003) suggests, the answer to this reality would be to ask for more globalization in these areas. The situation in these outer districts is especially important, since it represents an interesting paradox of globalization; does the small settlements face annihilation and despair due to localized isolation or will increased global flows create glocalization or could it in fact be the savior of these communities? 

The situation in Greenland is thus characterized by tensions between Greenland and the global world and by tensions between localities within the confinements of the neighborhoods in Greenland i.e. the settlements and townships.  In respect to the mobilities paradigm, which emphasize that all places are essentially networked and nowhere can be islands (Sheller & Urry, 2006, p. 209), it seems that facilitation using mediated technology should start in these outer districts. This is exactly where cultural probes should be deployed. However, due to challenges such as accessibility, poverty, literacy and the digital divide encountered in these areas, mediated initiatives must be carried out with the utmost respect to the localized conditions. In the following two sections I will first shortly address important design challenges involved with the probes, followed by further elaboration of the motivation behind these probes.                   

Design for the wild

The specific conditions and the context are essential factors when developing digital artifacts, “in order to design a tool, we must make our best efforts to understand the larger social and physical context within which it is intended to function” (Buxton, 2007, p. 37). The first step towards designing a well-founded digital solution in Greenland, should therefore entail ethnographic research in the form of participant observation (Goffman, 1989). This could possible be followed by an iterative social-research process by setting a hypothesis, creating a research design, data collection, data analysis and finally hypothesis testing (Bailey, 2007, p. 3-11). Unfortunately we have not had the luxury of traveling to Greenland and therefore our assumptions regarding solutions are more or less conjectural. It is however not entirely impossible to imagine at least some of the situations encountered by the locals in their own milieu. Furthermore, cultural probes are actually design methods in their own right and are often used to gather inspiration and provoke inspirational responses in diverse communities (Bimber & Flanagin et al., 2005). In this light, our suggestion of deploying the probes could be regarded merely as a first step within a larger process of introducing mediated technology in the outer districts of Greenland. 

The concept of the cultural probes is rather simple; the probe is essentially an instrument deployed to find out about the unknown. This is achieved by collecting imagery, video, sound and text with the device. The probes should naturally be sturdy devices able to withstand the artic climate, but most importantly – they should be easy to use in order to account for digital inexperience among the locals in the settlements. “They should not have to make place for the device in the mobile situation, but just use it instantly in the situation at hand: it should just take place” (Kristoffersen & Ljungberg, 1999). This is one of the common challenges of ubiquity whenever mobile devices are designed. Additionally, the material collected by these probes should of course be fed back and forth – and shared across the networks. This is achievable using central hubs where the probes are able to send and receive the material. In this way probes can both as recording and multimedia playing devices, which benefits locals in areas where such technology is inaccessible. 

Mediated cohesion and collective action 

But how does the deployment of digital probes allow Greenland to strengthen locality and globalize the local Greenland? The aim of the cultural probes is a twofold process. Firstly, the collection of the Greenlandic culture, through the distributed probes, should serve as shared frame of reference by facilitating the creation of a strong sense of locality, not just in the townships and settlements, but in Greenland as a whole. The rationale of the probes is therefore to mimic some of the special social capabilities of mobile telephony. According to Ling (2008), the mobile phone has become a mediated totem, which strengthens social cohesion through mediated ritual interactions.

Mediated interaction can enhance the broader co-present forms of interaction and can also function in its own right as a means through which members of a group can engage one another and develop a common sense of identity … the directness and ubiquity of the channel can lead to the tightening of social bonds within a group.

Ling, 2008, p. 119

Ling refers mainly to the affordances of mobile phones as mediated interaction devices, but the aim of the probe is similar in the sense of facilitating increased flow of information, in-between the outer districs and back to the cities. The hypothesis is that the probes will create stronger bonds and social capital by engaging the communities in one-to-one or many-to-many types of interaction. It is however worth noting that probes are limited by their type of asynchronous interaction, which could pose similar delays in the information flow as witnessed by the non-simultaneous VHS days in Greenland (Rygaard, 2013, p. 167). This is obviously a bit of a deal breaker, but until cell coverage in these areas is affordable, what is the alternative?    

The second goal of the probes is the collection of the authentic culture in Greenland. Such a collection contains a great branding potential, which can be utilized strategically in order to attract global interests. The probes facilitate a recalibration of collective action, which is characterized by the mediated actions taken by more people in the pursuit of collective goals (Bimber & Flanagin et al., 2005). When multiple Greenlanders participate in transforming their private discourse into a public discourse, the use of the probe crosses a boundary into non-rival collective goals. In the long term the collection of authentic material will build an authentic history of the culture, which can be used in the ever-important branding initiatives of Greenland, as seen on platforms such as (Rygaard, 2008, p. 260). The fact that stories are collected and created by the locals themselves creates an authenticity and agency, which theoretically motivates the locals to participate.  

Going local or global?

What has been suggested above can be viewed broadly as an attempt of cohesive gathering of the Greenlandic history and culture. The idea thus builds strongly on the concepts of crowdsourcing and citizen journalism. In this way each participant who uses the probe essentially becomes ambassadors of Greenland. On a micro scale the idea aims at fostering the strong local mooring throughout Greenland, and on the macro scale it aims at facilitating a globalized outward informational flow. The effect is in theory a tightly localized Greenland, which consist of members of the global village who embrace the increased informational flow. This proposal is however not without its challenges. First of all, engaging the inhabitants in the outer settlement could be more difficult than expected. Due to their isolation, we cannot assume that the locals will ever want to jump the bandwagon towards globalization, because what is really in it for them? One could argue that the rationale of the entire idea rests on an arrogant ‘globalized’ notion that the whole world should be interconnected and enlightened. This question is also addressed by Rygaard (2003) asking, “…who are the ones who wants to preserve the local culture? It is rarely the people living in the culture in question…” (p. 298). For Rygaard there is no alternative to globalization, neither in Greenland nor in the rest of the world. On this token it is worth observing the ever-increasing interest towards the minerals and oil hidden in the subsoil of Greenland. This development has the potential to completely transform this island into a technological hotbed, swarming with cheap and accessible ICT’s. In this light it may perhaps seem a bit silly to introduce a rather inferior communication device, such as a cultural probe. However, until the development permits otherwise, this is a good starting point towards reaping the benefits of globalization.


The current situation in Greenland is characterized by the distribution of glocalized youngsters living in the cities and the locals living isolated from any globalization in the outer districts. Utilizing the potential of digital cultural probes, the population in the outskirts of Greenland can be supported in gathering and co-creating the Greenlandic history and culture.  In this manner the flow of information and communication is increased throughout the country. Borrowing from the concept and affordances of mediated interaction technology, such as the mobile telephone, the use of the probes is theorized to strengthen the social cohesion by connecting individuals throughout the country. The probes create agency, purpose and facilitates the production of locality within the spatial confinements of the Greenland. The resulting material, collected using the probes, contains the authentic stories about the contemporary life in Greenland – created by the locals themselves. Such material can be used in the marketing initiatives aimed at creating increased awareness and interest from the outside world. In this way the population of Greenland becomes key players in their path towards pushing the country into the global.


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