Kanye West, the Internet, and Cultural Evolution

Jerome Barkow is worried about how the Internet is devaluing the “coin of local prestige,” but his own examples make it clear that this is far from a process that began with the internet. The Migili of Nigeria collapsed, he explains, because serving in the multi-ethnic Nigerian army gave the Migili youth a different set of criteria for evaluating their elders, which led to cultural interruption. Obviously, being exposed to nonlocal cultures is a broad, deep, and widespread process that predates even modernity.

There are three related questions to examine in this context: Does the Internet dramatically accelerate this process, so as to make it unmanageable beyond existing complexity and scale? Second, does the Internet introduce countervailing trends as well? And third, are nonlocal influences always negative in terms of cultural transmission?

Let’s start with the third since that is more broad, and a question that applies in principle to all eras. I would argue that nonlocal influences can be seen as positive in many cases. If human cultural transmission and reproduction always merely produced what local elders wanted to transmit, we might find ourselves continuing many practices that our modern culture finds negative, and even abhorrent. Through a combination of cultural transmission from afar, reproduced, as always, by local actors, we’ve seen the spread of many positive values in a variety of contexts, especially among the youth who are in the process of producing the next generation’s culture.

I grew up, for example, under a military dictatorship and could only learn about human rights (especially of ethnic minorities whose existence was denied by my own cultural context and by mass media) mostly through distant influences, which included the Internet as soon as I was able to get online. This, of course, caused tensions, but I daresay it was positive. Through my own and others’ research, sociologists find example after example of young people who find support and positive values by connecting to cultural resources not available to them locally. From gay youth in rural America and religiously conservative societies, from intellectual dissidents in many countries, even to Chinese teenagers who find online systems to be a personal outlet to discuss mundane personal problems in a manner not available to them locally, there is much to be said for stepping outside one’s own culture. To use evolutionary language, some external cultural interjection of novel values is perhaps the mutation that leads to greater diversity of cultural options and more resilient and novel cultural remixes.

Do we lose some cultures as a result? Undoubtedly. But that is human history: to lose cultural form as people evolve, remix, regenerate and move in many directions.

The second issue is this: The Internet also allows for greater preservation of some local cultural influences when compared to the 20th century, which was a century of a great amount of migration without a corresponding match in connectivity. Families who moved to new countries, or even just new cities, would lose touch with their old friends, family, and networks aside from a few phone calls and letters. International migration meant even greater loss of connectivity. Thanks to digital connectivity, though, I can stay in touch with my friends from middle school, high school, and college, even though they are dispersed in more than a dozen countries. The high-migration, low-connectivity model of 20th century has been replaced by a high-migration, high-connectivity model, which means expatriate communities are not completely isolated from their local culture even when physically away. Online cultural forums are thriving, and many people find connecting with their roots to be an important affordance of digital connectivity. In many countries, ethnic minorities are experiencing a revival as well since digital connectivity allows them to preserve aspects of their culture that were being slowly assimilated by the 20th century mechanisms of migration, urbanization, and mass media. Perhaps Dr. Barkow’s Migili might not have been so isolated from their local, elder-valuing culture if they were able to stay in touch with their Migili peers back at home.

Finally, for the third point, Dr. Barkow argues that social media creates high status for “pop stars and athletes” at the expense of local cultural high-status persons, which young people would have instead aspired to. On the one hand, this is absolutely true. On the other, this is a phenomenon that predates the Internet and is more about mass media than it is about social media. Mass media—including print media—have been creating high-status celebrities from pop stars (whatever that term means in different eras) and athletes for a long time. One may wish this not to be true, but I don’t see an argument that online mechanisms are worse for this than television, which is probably the pinnacle of the mass media pop star. On the contrary, the online world introduces two dynamics which counter some of the potentially negative ramifications of the distant, high-status celebrity.

First, the online world allows the creation of a much more varied and longer list of high-status individuals who function as semi-celebrities, even though many are not as big as the mega-celebrities of the mass media era. Rather than just pop stars, some online stars (with huge social media followings) include astronomers, civil rights or democracy activists (depending on the country), authors, philosophers, academics, funny video makers, skateboarders, mathematicians, independent musicians, and more. During the era when mass media had an effective monopoly on public attention, only a few individuals that were tightly integrated into the corporate-financed public relations machinery could achieve such celebrity status. Nowadays, the “long tail” of Internet-fueled celebrity includes a much more diverse set of individuals who clearly hold high status that one may aspire to, rather than just a few blockbuster pop stars.

Second, the celebrities are no longer managed purely by a one-way publicity machine. Many of them tweet and post themselves, revealing themselves to be individuals: sometimes saying things that online fans can react to positively or negatively. Ironically, this can end up with celebrities that have a less well managed and polished status compared to the mass-media era when almost every word that they uttered which reached the masses was produced in controlled, scripted settings. Just this week, for example, one of hip-hop’s biggest stars, Kanye West, was excoriated online for his tweets and views that many found misogynistic. He went online to defend his views, and to call not-censoring his art to be a more important principle, and then many fans and other observers responded to that point as well. He remains a major pop star with an enormous amount of influence, but his fans arguably have a chance at a more complex understanding of who he is compared to the era of television.

Overall, I’d argue that cultural transmission from external sources is a regular occurrence in human societies, and that the cultural reproduction of each society as is has never been tenable. From the invention of writing to human migratory movements to mass media, there have been strong forces towards cultural remixing and, yes, cultural loss and assimilation. The Internet is far from the cause of these trends, and in some ways it mitigates against three of the most important sources of cultural erasure and assimilation: migration, nation-states that aim for a unified culture out of a multi-cultural mix, and mass media.

It’s true that the Internet helps create a shared global(ish) culture among youth that have more opportunities to share cultural experiences on a wider scale. But in that regard, it’s replacing television, not the elders. One may mourn the loss of the cultural tapestry of many regions that has been going on for centuries, but I do not mourn the loss of cultural dominance of one-way television, the bright screens that blared at us without any means of interactivity or community among the “audience.”

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.