The Internet has always held the promise of bridging the gap between diverse cultures, but so far most of the information seems to have flowed in one direction: from developed nations in the West, and particularly North America, to the rest of the world. "The validity of information that flows from indigenous cultures towards us is as strong as the other way around," says Chris Rainier, a photojournalist for National Geographic Traveler magazine and cofounder of Cultures on the Edge (cultureontheedge.com), a web site designed to share information between disparate cultures around the world.
Billed as an online magazine, the site features articles, music, videotaped interviews, and stunning photographs of people at home in places like the Thai-Burmese border and southwest Ethiopia. Some of these pictures were taken by "first world" photographers, while others were created by people who belong to the cultures they depict.
"We for so long have traveled to a culture, photographed it, brought it back and presumed to say, 'This is what the culture is,'" Rainier says. "I think that's kind of colonial." The alternative approach, he says, is, "To invite a photographer from the Amazon to tell us what the Amazon is all about, or someone that lives in a tribe in the Sahara desert. They are out there, they are using cameras, they are doing amazing things ... they're telling their own stories, and it's about time."
In fact, Rainier says, the fastest-growing part of the Internet right now is "small indigenous groups building web sites for their own cultures. ... So we truly are seeing a shift, where ancient cultures are using modern technology to preserve their culture in the present.
"The assumption by modern (Western) culture," he adds, "is that these tribes living deep in the forest or hidden behind the sand dunes of the Sahara desert or high in the Himalayas are doomed to go extinct, that they are sort of a last breath of a moment in human history that passed long ago — whereas, in fact, they are thriving, changing, vibrant cultures that continue to evolve."
Rainier says the site currently gets more than 100,000 hits a month from all over the globe and will soon be available in 10 different languages. Eventually it's slated to become part of the National Geographic web site, which gets a whopping 35 million hits a month. As far as Rainier is concerned, that level of exposure will be good for everyone.
"We all have to realize that we live on a small planet," he says. "It's high time we all started talking with our neighbors a bit more."