In Today’s World, Cultural Stasis Isn’t an Option

The claim that the Internet—the most potent tool of information dissemination yet devised by humanity—will undermine cultural transmission ought to sound counterintuitive on its face. What really worries Jerome Barkow, of course, is not the possibility that cultural transmission as such will be jeopardized, but that one form of it will be supplanted by another: that the hierarchical reproduction of presumptively adaptive local norms and values will be disrupted by the frenetic lateral transmission of invasive mimetic species. Yet our experience with the mass-Internet to date provides both reason to doubt that its disruptive cultural effects will be as drastic as Barkow fears—and reason to doubt that we should regard it as a net negative to the extent it does occur.

The most ominous poster child for Barkow’s worst-case scenario is the soi-disant Islamic State, the revanchist death cult whose mastery of social media—the headlines regularly warn us—enables it to plant ideological cuckoo’s eggs in impressionable young brains, transforming disaffected teens into wild-eyed jihadis. But some perspective is in order. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper estimated last year that some 180 young Americans had flown to Syria to join ISIS—and while any number greater than “none” is surely disturbing, that represents about 0.0036% of the 3.3 million-strong U.S. Muslim population, which (again, at least in the United States) scarcely qualifies as a mass phenomenon. Moreover, the Soufan Group, an intelligence consulting firm, argues that the role of social media in ISIS recruitment has been overstated relative to the importance of old-fashioned, face-to-face social networks and personal ties:

The eight young men who left the Lisleby district of Fredrikstad, Norway, to join the Islamic State in Syria did not join because of social media, even if it did help spread the group’s message. All were reportedly motivated to join the Islamic State by the example of Abdullah Chaib, a charismatic local soccer player who traveled to Syria in 2012. The small group of friends created a feedback loop of motivation and encouragement that did not depend on Twitter or Facebook. Likewise, the terror recruit cluster in Molenbeek, Belgium thrived on networks built around friendship and familial ties, not Telegram or Kik. This same dynamic of peer-to-peer recruitment and consistent face-to-face interaction produced the cluster in the Minneapolis-Saint Paul region of Minnesota. Long-time foreign fighter hotbeds such as Derna, Libya, and Bizerte and Ben Gardane in Tunisia rely on decidedly offline networks to export extremism.

When it comes to the most prominent, radical, and unambiguously toxic example of a disruptive meme complex, then, the evidence to date should give us some modicum of reassurance—its appeal remains relatively marginal, and in any event is not wholly the Internet-driven phenomenon popular media portrayals might lead us to imagine.

ISIS, of course, is only the most extreme case—and it would be modest comfort if Barkow’s disruptive scenario were merely unfolding in some less dramatically lethal form. What about Internet-driven disruption of local values more generally? While I’m not aware of any direct measure of how faithfully teens are assimilating local values on the whole, the annual Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey may provide a useful proxy of how closely the rising generation is hewing to adult expectations. The data there, as summed up by a recent Vox report, suggests that “today’s teenagers are among the best-behaved on record.” Compared with their parents’ generation in the early 1990s—the last cohort to come of age before the advent of the mass Internet—contemporary teens are less likely to smoke, to drink heavily, or to become pregnant. As measured by all the classic loci of parental anxiety, in short, today’s teens are unusual only in how faithfully they conform to the standards of behavior most parents seek to impose.

One reason we’re not seeing evidence of disrupted cultural transmission—at least not in forms more profound than a preference for LOLcat memes over Jane Austen novels—may be that teens now experience the online world differently than, say, I did as a student in the 1990s. Before the Internet reached its current level of mass adoption, going online almost necessarily meant routinely interacting with widely dispersed strangers—a social world far removed from one’s geographically proximate friends and acquaintances. Now, as danah boyd observes in her illuminating study of online teen behavior It’s Complicated, things are different:

Although the technology makes it possible in principle to socialize with anyone online, in practice teens connect to the people that they know and with whom they have the most in common.

The online world of modern teens, in other words, substantially replicates their offline social worlds, reinforcing rather than disrupting local norms. And it’s not just their peers, but their parents whom teens find sharing their online spaces. The extensive interviews boyd conducted in her research reveal that—as a side effect of false but pervasive perceptions of a more dangerous world—teen socialization is moving from parentally unmonitored public spaces to environments more amenable to adult supervision, online or off. A parent who can see their child’s Facebook wall has unprecedented visibility into their child’s social network and influences—and many teens reported that their parents insist on knowing their social media passwords, giving them access to even private interactions. Thus, even as teens are potentially exposed to a wider array of far-flung social influences, parents have a far greater ability to observe those influences and guide how their children respond.

All this notwithstanding, Barkow is nevertheless surely correct that a highly networked and interconnected world is one in which local cultures will not reproduce themselves with the level of uncomplicated fidelity we’ve been accustomed to in most of human history. But neither is it clear this is a wholly negative development. As a 2014 NPR story observed, gay teens—especially those in small towns that may lack anything resembling a local gay culture—have turned to the Internet in large numbers for social support and reassurance. The online “It Gets Better” movement explicitly targets such teens with the message that the sense of isolation and stigma they may experience locally as young adults will not characterize the rest of their lives. If the Internet undermines the “transmission” of homophobic or sexist parental norms, surely that’s a cause for celebration rather than lament, at least for those who don’t subscribe to those ideas.

Along similar lines, some research suggests that the Internet is also, quite modestly, disrupting the transmission of religious faith. As teens are exposed to the diversity of world religions—and to religious skepticism—some come to see the faith into which they were born as precisely an accident of birth, undermining its claim to their automatic or “natural” allegiance. While this is doubtless a source of dismay for more religious parents, secular Americans will be apt to see it as a healthy development: Whatever one’s reaction, it can’t be separated from one’s stance on the underlying value dispute.

Finally, and perhaps most generally, I think it’s necessary to question the tacit premise—embedded in Barkow’s anecdote about the Migili—that young people are best served by adopting the traditional cultural norms that have evolved in and adapted to their geographically local context. Though the analogy has surface plausibility, it is simply not the case that children are bringing values from the Internet into an otherwise smoothly functioning isolated local culture. Rather, the cultural context for teens and adults alike is now that of an interconnected global network: The global is already the local context. The days when children could count on simply carrying on the trade of their parents and grandparents are gone. Listicles detailing the “jobs that don’t exist anymore because of technology” or “high-paying jobs that didn’t exist a decade ago” are themselves a clichéd subgenre of sorts. I owe my own career largely to a blog I began writing in college, which led to a long stint in online journalism, and ultimately to my current position at Cato. And that teen who’s more interested in being a YouTube celebrity than following in dad’s footsteps at the auto plant? Well, call it the disruption of cultural transmission if you like—but in an economy already irreversibly disrupted by technological change, you could also call it the next savvy adaptation.

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • How the Internet Subverts Cultural Transmission by Jerome H. Barkow

    Jerome H. Barkow describes how cultures perpetuate and improve themselves - and how that process can dramatically break down. He suggests that the Internet is creating the conditions for a potentially disastrous social breakdown: When youth no longer respect and emulate high-status transmitters of culture, cultural knowledge is lost. And when that happens, cultures will dramatically change. With this change many adaptive behaviors may disappear, although we cannot say for sure just what will remain afterward. The dramatic substitution of sports stars and entertainers for local authority figures has been going on for quite some time, and its effects have only accelerated in the age of social media.

Response Essays

  • Like Matt Ridley, I Remain Rationally Optimistic by Donald J. Boudreaux

    Donald J. Boudreaux accepts that social media have been transformative, but he doubts that “unsavory cultural consequences” are on the way. Living standards are the highest they have ever been, and they continue to rise. Material wealth has risen, he thinks, particularly because of rising knowledge - knowledge about the demand for certain products, knowledge about how the physical world works, knowledge about production and distribution techniques, and knowledge about local opportunities. Like other forms of media that have gone before them, social media have allowed us to trade and combine good ideas and bits of useful local knowledge that otherwise might never have been put to use. So while we can’t say for certain that we aren’t undermining the channels of cultural transmission, the future still looks brighter than ever, and fast, cheap communication itself is a big part of why it does.

  • Kanye West, the Internet, and Cultural Evolution by Zeynep Tufekci

    Zeynep Tufekci argues that the Internet is replacing former modes of cultural transmission. But for many of us, it’s not replacing traditional local elders - it’s replacing the homogeneous, carefully produced mass media of the twentieth century. Now, rather than seeing only what the media industry wants us to see, we interact with celebrities in a much more personal, unmediated way. We also have many more of them - not just athletes, actors, and pop stars, but astrophysicists, philosophers, and the creators of YouTube videos can all serve as “celebrities” with fans of their own. On the personal level, although we now migrate more than ever, the Internet allows us to keep in touch with the cultures where we grew up. Social media’s role in cultural transmission is thus exceptionally complex, and it is not simply a matter of replacing static and traditional modes of cultural transmission with new and disruptive ones.

The Conversation