Specialists in the Culture of Our Youth

Julian Sanchez and Zeynep Tufekci each, in his and her own eloquent way, make points that I, with much less eloquence, strove to make in my first essay.

Julian’s and Zeynep’s essays bring to mind my colleague Tyler Cowen’s 1998 book, In Praise of Commercial Culture and his 2002 follow-up volume, Creative Destruction: How Globalization is Changing World Cultures.  If he hasn’t yet done so, I urge Prof. Barkow to read these two books.  In each, Tyler reviews the many different fears expressed throughout history of how commerce – both in and of itself, and of the extension of commerce across political or ethnic borders – will weaken, worsen, or wreck ‘good’ cultures.  With an enviable mastery of not only economics and of history, but also of art and culture, Tyler demonstrates that these fears were almost always unjustified.

Nearly all of the cultures that we know today are themselves the products of past mixings of cultures – mixings that creatively destroyed older cultures and replaced them with newer, more vibrant ones.  This cultural evolution has, no doubt, always been accompanied by older people fretting about the future.  But as Tyler explains, such fretting reflects the reality that human beings’ cultural skills are specialized to deal with the culture of their youth.  I remember being mystified as a young man that my grandparents not only did not enjoy the Beatles’ music, but seemed genuinely to find it to be “nothing but banging and screaming” (to quote a description that I remember well from my paternal grandfather who, circa 1974, came upon me as I was listening to the Fab Four’s “She’s a Woman.”)

But there’s no mystery: we each become specialized in the culture of our youth, and so we have at least as much difficulty learning to understand and to “use” new cultural developments as, say, an auto mechanic from 1964 would encounter were he to try his hand at repairing the engine of a 2014 Toyota Rav4.  It’s doable, but it’s neither easy nor comfortable.  And the need to do it isn’t especially welcome.

I see no reason to suppose that the cultural mixings promoted by the Internet are likely to be worse than were the mixings in the past that were promoted by earlier means of mass communication and by globe-spanning trade.  Put differently, while the media and mechanisms that drive cultural mixing – and, hence, that drive cultural evolution – today differ from those of the past, there’s no evident reason to fear that these differences will be any less enriching and empowering than were the cultural changes of yesteryear.

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.