Culture Under a Siege of Change

August 27, 2019 Update: An interesting article I came across recently spoke of how tablets and phones are now making skim reading the new norm and that is affecting how we humans can digest and critique the information we read:

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/aug/25/skim-reading-new-normal-maryanne-wolf

Culture is the means by which individuals have an understanding of the norms and practices, or customs, of a society. It encompasses language and non-verbal communication, world view and history, religion and spirituality, and the arts. Cultures are now experiencing crises after crises. Why?

Within any culture there have always been sub groups. Post-modernism has seen societies further fracture into a myriad of ever smaller, ever more specifically defined, sub-cultures and groups. The more fractured the groups the less cohesive the overall culture is. Add in the loss of common language and communication norms and an inability to debate ideas rather than personalities, societies have further disintegration. This is tribalism.

What is causing this fracturing?

I hypothesize that it is the frantic pace of change.

Change is not limited to any one country. It affects the whole world. Changes in one country can have tremendous impact on other countries. Changes in technology, in language – slang and new words – and in generational perspectives all create cultural friction. We’ve seen this in the past. Where an older generation will denigrate the following generation as lazy or too interested in the wrong things.

Three hundred years ago the difference between two generations was relatively minimal. The 1690’s were not that much different than the 1710’s at least technologically. Yet technology did make itself felt from time to time. The industrial revolution and the advent of the steam engine brought unprecedented change, causing strife when people in the manufacturing industries lost their jobs. Luddites are the prime example of this era.

Rebelling at new cotton and woollen mill technology these English workers destroyed machinery, which they believed jeopardized their livelihoods. Sound familiar? Now the term ‘luddite’ refers to someone who is against new technology or new ways of working. I think this is incorrect. What a Luddite is really against is change. There is a lot of change right now.

Culture Changed More Slowly in the Past.

Cultural evolution, as a measure of the acquisition of knowledge, emerging trends, and technological progress was a slow process. Cultures did not change very quickly because external and internal forces for change were minimal. At least from a population wide perspective rather than a smaller tribe perspective. In the 60,000 plus year history of modern Homo sapiens we’ve only been living in permanent settlements for the last 10,000 years or so. That’s how slow technological change happened. Today that is not the case.

Each day brings new technology, new advancements, and new improvements. Roy Amara once said ‘We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the affect in the long run.” Ten years ago broadband internet service was considered a luxury, now it is considered a basic human right. The difference between haves and have nots are now measured in ways other than just from a financial perspective; healthcare, education, food and water, and technology have uneven access.

Cultures cannot compete with this constant rate of change. When an individual, who feels secure in their world, experiences a sudden shift, creating great change, there is stress. Typically, this would be the death of a loved one, or a loss of employment, or the birth of a child. These changes have occurred through out human history and have provided friction in a person’s life. But, changes are now occurring all the time on top of these ‘regular’ events. What happens when everyone feels stress? Culture experiences upheaval.

Some attribute this upheaval to societies moving away from the religious centre of past generations, but that is only a symptom, not the cause of cultural distress. It’s the constant aggressive sharing of opinion, of technology advance, of desire for improvement, of negative news, of climate change heating up the world and causing increasingly turbulent weather patterns, all rolled up into one package. Through all of this there are those who push forward and there are those who push back.

Individuals Face Instability

An individual can experience culture shock. Anyone traveling to a foreign country has experienced this to some degree. My issues with culture shock in Japan revolve around the cicada, or semi in Japanese. Here in North America you can occasionally hear the cicada; it’s loud monotonous buzz, slowly diminishes to nothing after a half minute. You may hear one a day. In Japan at the height of summer you hear thousands upon thousands of them. Everywhere. That is when I landed in Japan.

This buzzing cacophony did not cease at night. The extent of this sound, which I was dropped into, is like a drill bit turning in each ear every minute of every day. To the Japanese this is a sound of summer. To me, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t hear, I couldn’t think. I thought I was going insane. For weeks I struggled to keep up during the simplest of conversations. It was as thorough a disruption to my life as I’ve ever experienced.

Contrast that experience to my last summer in Japan. This time I was there for the beginning of the cicada season, when it started off slowly. By the height of the cicada buzzing, several weeks later, I was used to it. I didn’t notice it at all. The gradual change allowed me to more easily adapt to the change itself. Cultures no longer have gradual changes, and they are fraying as a result.

I wish I had the answers for how to deal with society’s ills. But, I do believe that if you accept and admit that there’s an issue to begin with, it becomes a little easier to manage.

For me personally, something will happen and I feel this growing bubble of frustration in my gut. It gets bigger and when it pops I get angry. Sometimes I don’t even know why, exactly, I’m angry. The issue is that I don’t know what caused the frustration initially. Was it my child dropping the drink on the floor? Was it something at work? Was it something someone else said? Something I read?

I need to take a moment and analyze why I’m feeling the way I am. But in this fast paced society we have there is little chance for reflection, to assess the situation, and to try to understand the wellspring of that emotion. When we all experience this how can society cope?

How do you deal with the constant change you face? Let me know in the comments below.

Thank you for reading.

Photo by joe murphy from FreeImages

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