Reply to Boudreaux: Let Us Address the Empirical Questions

I do think Donald J. Boudreaux gives me too much credit and Cosmides and Tooby too little for the book The Adapted Mind. More to the point, Boudreaux seems to have read my essay as Jerome’s Jeremiad.

My essay is simply not about whether the world is going to hell in a handbasket. It is about how, if we are going to understand our Internetted world, we need to learn more about the evolved mechanisms that, in the past, mediated the transmission/editing of cultural information but whose operation, today, is having unpredictable results and producing disruptive change. My catchphrase “biology is destiny only if we ignore it” is a plea for research on our evolved psychology and to take that research into account in our efforts to understand current sociocultural change. Unlike Boudreaux (and Pinker), I did not intend to discuss whether things are getting better or worse today. I certainly hope the optimistic view is correct – after all, I have grandchildren – but that is not my subject.

I do argue that the information young people learn from media figures, diverting them from more traditional paths, may be preventing them from using their talents in ways that help the rest of us. Personally, I’d prefer the best and the brightest to want to become local mayors or entrepreneurs rather than entertainers (to the extent that that is what is happening; one more research question that needs answering). I am indeed very concerned that we seem to be forming ourselves into distributed tribes (silos?) of people who may not see themselves as having much in common with their actual neighbors and rarely communicate with them – another issue that requires research rather than pronouncements. Understanding the paying-attention-to-the-high-in-status mechanism provides a tool for understanding social change. I wish I had had that tool in my fieldworker’s kit when I worked among the Migili; all I could do for lack of it was to describe briefly how a formerly integrated community became one with sharply reduced cooperation and cohesion. I should have been asking questions about who respected (and was therefore learning from) whom.

Does Internet communication lead to trust? Yes, it can, but that is not necessarily a good thing. People in face-to-face societies often face quite real sanctions if they violate the trust of people with whom they interact and cooperate with in a direct, physical way. On the Internet, the consequences of violating trust are few – one can pretend to be of another age, gender, ethnicity, and marital status, and people regularly do. Our newspapers are full of stories of individuals being financially victimized by someone whom they thought was a friend or a serious marriage prospect. Does the Internet permit violations of trust by corporations with access to both the vast databanks on our behavior and the increasingly sophisticated social psychology literature on trust? Many believe it does. Does it permit people to cooperate meaningfully in legitimate crowd-sourcing to raise capital for small enterprises or to provide charitable aid to those in need? Yes. I suggest that asking if the Internet gives rise to more or less trust and cooperation is not particularly useful; instead, we need research-based analyses of the kinds of trust (and distrust) relationships fostered by the Internet, and education about the results so that we can simultaneously protect ourselves while forming real bonds through honest electronic communication.

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.