Like Matt Ridley, I Remain Rationally Optimistic

Proper respect for one’s elders – in particular here, for high-status senior scholars – counsels me to avoid what I’m about to do: disagree with Jerome Barkow. It is especially unwise of me in this case to reject this counsel, for Barkow is a scholar who has earned high status not merely by being senior, but by producing a body of scholarship that is enlightening, creative, and germane. (The volume he edited in 1992 with Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, The Adapted Mind, is one of the most eye-opening and insightful books on my shelves.)

Further raising the volume of this counsel is my agreement with a major premise of Barkow’s essay – namely, the importance of culture and hence also of the mechanisms of cultural change and transmission through time. Not merely because I’m in my mid-50s with a teenaged son do I agree strongly with Barkow’s observation that “for a culture to be perpetuated, the young must respect their elders: at least in some crucial ways, they must want to be like them and therefore to attend to them and learn preferentially from them. To take the prestige away from the older people is to throw a monkey wrench into the system of cultural transmission.”

Yet I believe that Barkow’s fears of unsavory cultural consequences from social media are unwarranted. Of course, it’s possible for social media to so drown out or to falsely devalue the counsel and perspectives of parents and other local elites that modern society degenerates, for want of wisdom transmitted to younger generations, into a chaotic or uncivilized – even hyper-dangerous – dystopia. But the tale of this possibility as told by Barkow strikes me as an instance of that all-too-familiar ages-old phenomenon: elders convinced that today’s young’uns, with their new-fangled gadgets and independent ways, will cause society to coarsen and eventually collapse.

Mature perspective is vital. The material standards of living of ordinary people (indeed, even of the poor) in market-oriented societies are today higher than ever, and they continue to rise. The ongoing production of material wealth that makes this trend a reality is not – despite what Thomas Piketty or Bernie Sanders might suppose – automatic or easy. It requires vast amounts of productive human creativity, effort, and flexibility. Such creativity and effort in turn require not only discipline and well-channeled intelligence, but also widespread trust. And widespread trust exists only when nearly everyone can be relied upon to keep promises even to strangers and to avoid taking advantage of others on those many occasions when such opportunism is possible. As I explain in more detail below, widespread, low-cost communication promotes this creativity and trust.

Also do not forget that, as Steven Pinker documents, human-on-human violence is today at an all-time low. Despite savage ISIS terrorists, iron-fisted Russian strongmen, and trigger-happy police S.W.A.T. teams, people today are safer than ever from each other’s furies and cruelties.

Life expectancy continues to rise and illiteracy continues to fall.

Indeed, a few minutes spent at Cato’s are enough to make clear that humanity has never been as wealthy, healthy, safe, and educated as it is today. And nearly all of this progress has occurred as communication costs have fallen and, hence, as the reach of each person’s communication has widened and lengthened. The 15th century printing press – the 18th century newspaper – the 19th century telegraph and telephone – the 20th century radio, television, and e-mail – the 21st century Internet, smartphone, instant messaging, and social media: all have added the voices of strangers to those of parents and local elites.

It’s true that this blessing is not unalloyed. The same telephone that allows the parents of a sick child to summon a physician at 3:00 am allows that child, just a few years later, to be summoned by an acquaintance to participate in some heinous or self-destructive deed. The same Internet that allows my George Mason University colleagues each year to open the eyes of tens of thousands of students to the wonders of the economic way of thinking allows ISIS operatives each year to entice a few thousand impressionable young people into the ranks of vile evil-doers. And yet human progress is nevertheless correlated with the fall in the costs for ordinary people of communicating over long distances with strangers.

Correlation, I know, isn’t causation. But correlation often does point to causation. I believe that in this case it does so.

Most obviously, the more widespread and frequent is communication among strangers, the greater is the number of combinations of different ideas – combinations that produce as offspring new ideas that almost certainly would not otherwise be produced. Matt Ridley describes this productive process as “ideas having sex.” And just as sexual reproduction by humans is not always successful – sex and reproduction do have their risks – idea reproduction is not always successful; it, too, has its risks.

But we must not be blinded to the huge upside of such idea reproduction just because that upside is so familiar to us today that we take it for granted. Easy and widespread communication makes possible global markets that, in turn, justify the undertaking of large-scale production as well as of expensive upfront R&D efforts. Pfizer, for example, is more likely to invest a billion dollars developing a treatment for the Zika virus if it expects to be able to market its treatment to hundreds of millions of people worldwide than if it could market that treatment only to a few hundred thousand people in North America. And its ability to market globally rather than locally is in turn enhanced by easy, low-cost, and reliable global communication.

Or consider modern peace and prosperity. These blessings are largely the consequences of trade and a worldwide division of labor that weave us all into one global economy. Each of us is today more dependent upon countless strangers than was true of even the most cosmopolitan man or woman of the past. This trade, specialization, and mutual dependence not only raise the costs of war – as Tom G. Palmer notes, “It’s bad business to slaughter your customers” – they also forge closer bonds of understanding across the globe. Yet without modern means of communication, such trade, specialization, and mutual dependence would be far less extensive and intensive. We would all be materially and culturally poorer as well as at greater risk of being victimized by nationalism-fueled belligerencies. (Empirical evidence supports the proposition that international trade, while no guarantor of peace, does indeed make peace more likely.)

So, yes, the most recent reduction in the costs of communication might well, for reasons spelled out by Jerome Barkow, prove to be the undoing of civilization. But I’ll bet against it. I’ll almost certainly not be around, say, 50 years from now to boast ‘I told you so!’ but I’m very confident that in 2066 young people will use the latest advances in communication technology (ones that we today can’t imagine) to share with each other their ideas, hopes, gossip, and entertainment tips. And many people in my son’s generation – who will then be society’s elders – will look with fear upon the changes that these new communications technologies threaten to unleash upon humankind.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • 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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Julian Sanchez argues that the Internet has indeed wrought significant cultural change. But fears of online jihadism have been exaggerated; face-to-face recruitment remains a more potent method, it would appear, than Twitter. Apart from that, American teens nowadays seem remarkably well-behaved, and their online social activities mostly mirror their offline ones. And while some cultural knowledge has been lost, that in part has been the result of technological change rendering some careers obsolete while creating some new ones. It is ultimately unclear why we should be afraid of these new forms of cultural transmission, or the content that they convey.