Reply to Tufekci: Appreciating the Upside of Rapid Change

I really like Zeynep Tufekci’s positive attitude and mostly agree with her. Of course learning from and being influenced by other cultures is not new – it is likely older than our species! I discuss this at greater length elsewhere but I had hoped that, in my essay, I was making it clear that what the Internet does is to greatly accelerate a trend that began with reading books, was amplified by film, radio, and television, and has truly taken off today. I think the main difference between my perspective and that of Tufekci is that my starting point is always that we evolved as hunter-gatherers and remained so for almost all of our existence as a species, and that there has simply not been time for evolution to have produced major psychological changes across human populations.[1] Thus, our brains are still adapted to earlier environments so that a culture-editing mechanism which until recently produced largely adaptive results is today having unpredictable effects. Tufekci is comparing the world of television to the world of the Internet. Naturally, she sees much smaller differences than I do, since I am comparing the Internet world with the small-scale, band-level, hunting-gathering world in which our species evolved and has mostly lived. Since the difference is one of perspective, we are both right.

Tufekci’s most valuable contribution is her point that respecting non-local Internet figures can have very positive effects. Would North Korea, for example, survive in its current state if the population had free access to the Internet? Its government obviously does not think so, and efforts to control Internet content and access by non-democratic governments are unfortunately common. Moreover, as I discuss, during times of rapid social change, such as the rapid rural-urban migration that has affected and continues to affect most of the world, parents and local prestigious figures may have limited relevant knowledge to offer. And thus respect for and learning from non-local figures may be essential. The Internet’s facilitation of preferential attention to non-local figures is leading to much disruptive change, but disruptive change can be good.


[1] After all, there is no evidence that there are genetically based psychological differences between people whose ancestors left off hunting-gathering 14,000 years ago, and those who are still hunter-gatherers today.

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.