About this Issue
One of the key concerns of sociologists is the study of how cultures perpetuate themselves. The transmission of ideas and values from young to old gives a given culture a measure of continuity over time. Yet the channels by which we communicate have lately undergone a revolution. In particular, the young and old often no longer communicate through the same channels at all. Are social media breaking the links of cultural continuity? And what will happen then? In particular, can a free society - one that values and protects individual autonomy and free expression - still defend itself against this type of danger?
Our lead essayist this month is Professor Jerome H. Barkow, who argues that the danger is real, and that we need to think carefully about the cultural downsides of social media. Responding to him will be Professor Donald J. Boudreaux of George Mason University, Cato Insitute Senior Fellow Julian Sanchez, and Professor Zeynep Tufekci of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. We also welcome your comments; the conversation will continue through the end of the month.
How the Internet Subverts Cultural Transmission
Our genus, Homo, has only a single species, sapiens, something extremely odd given that we have occupied virtually the entire globe, even putting vessels all over and under the sea. Other genera speciate as they spread. For example, the genus of the big cats is Panthera, and it includes the species lion, tiger, jaguar, leopard, and snow leopard. When Darwin’s finches colonized the Galapagos Islands they evolved into at least a dozen new species (Darwin 1839). In contrast, humans have colonized islands and archipelagoes all over the world, but we are still only a single species, H. sapiens. Why is Homo a singleton?
We are alone because instead of evolving different species to adapt to different geographies and climates, we adapt through culture. Our species is often described as a generalist, but in fact we are not, we are extremely specialized: everywhere, we are utterly dependent on vast bodies of stored, transmitted, and constantly edited and updated information, that is, on culture (Barkow 1989). A culture is a massive compendium of knowledge – it includes subsistence skills, forms of social organization that are reasonably compatible with our current environment and level of technology, all details of that technology, effective ways to procure food and other essentials, the belief systems that more-or-less support the way we are socially organized, how we communicate from spoken language to gestures to posture and facial expressions, how to and when to clean and to clothe ourselves, how to court and how to compete, how to make art and evaluate the art of others, how to rest and how to sleep, how to have sex and how to rear children, and so on. Properly done, an old-fashioned ethnography – a description of the way of life of a people – was an encyclopedia, though always an incomplete one. Moreover, it was out-of-date the instant it was completed because cultures are always changing, that is, all groups have an ongoing history. Youth is a busy, busy time for members of Homo sapiens because every individual must strive to engulf many doctorates’ worth of knowledge: we must acquire and adapt enough of our local information ocean to permit us to find our place in our home society.
Though at times some psychological anthropologists have focused on aspects of cultural acquisition, the fields of cognitive and developmental psychology do and do not study culture. They do, because they focus on learning and the individual child, and they do not, because they tend to ignore the higher level of organization at which we can talk about cultural acquisition and editing. In recent years, some evolutionists have begun to think of culture as an adaptive, evolving system and the participants of a culture not as blind copying machines but as editors and inventers of the knowledge of which a culture consists (e.g., Barkow 1989; Barkow, O’Gorman and Rendell 2012, 2013; Fessler 2007; Mesoudi 2016; Mesoudi et al 2016).
Culture as an adaptive mechanism would be a dead-end if human psychology were no more than a copying machine that simply replicated knowledge with high fidelity. Environments change – fisheries get depleted, rivers run dry, enemies arrive, crops contract diseases, climates change. New opportunities also arise – perhaps the enemies bring new technologies, or new cultivars become possible, or population growth leads to colonizing new and different territories. Cultural information needs not just to be replicated but, with each generation, tested and challenged with some bits discarded and new ones added. Occasionally, only revolutionary change will do.
You and I are the children of the successful. Our ancestors succeeded in assimilating and adapting and inventing cultural information so as to permit them to survive and reproduce – actually, to out-survive and out-reproduce the competition, thereby increasing the proportion of their own genetic representation in the local gene pool. Offspring resemble their parents, as Darwin taught, so presumably most of us have at least some of the culture-editing mechanisms that enabled our ancestors to become our ancestors. No doubt future researchers will produce massive tomes delineating these mechanisms and how they orchestrate the processes that turn a child into an adult member of his or her culture and society.
This essay focuses on only one of our culture-editing mechanisms, the tendency to pay preferential attention to, and learn preferentially from, the high in status, an idea originally suggested by the ethologist Michael R. A. Chance (1967; Chance and Larsen 1976; Barkow 1976). As young people, we seek as respected and prestigious a position in our local society as we can, and in doing so we in effect edit our culture. In adolescence we tend to become preoccupied by our own relative standing and that of the people and groups around us. This status consciousness may be considered reprehensible among some culturally egalitarian groups today, but how can we pay preferential attention to the high in status without status consciousness?
When we pay attention to someone whom we respect and admire or simply fear, a frequently one-way communication channel opens, and learning is enabled. In doing so, two processes begin: First, we are editing our cultures – we are editing out the behavior and knowledge of the low-in-status, the “losers,” the ignored, from the culture’s information pool. In their place we are replicating versions of the information associated with the high-in-status, the prestigious, the winners. Second, we are positioning ourselves to acquire prestige because those who are already respected must be doing something right! Of course, this is obviously an imperfect mechanism – our judgment of who is higher and who is lower may change, the knowledge we delete or insert may be irrelevant to the actual social standing of the individuals involved (let’s wear our hats the way the wealthy do, let’s not eat the traditional food of the poor, regardless of its nutritional characteristics): but during our long evolution this mechanism was probably reasonably effective. Learning our hunting and gathering skills from the people who were respected because they brought food back to the band, rather than learning the techniques of those of low status because they usually returned empty-handed, would have represented highly adaptive cultural editing. Learning our parenting skills from the woman respected because of her many healthy children would have been similarly adaptive. The techniques of the farmer who had higher yields than others, or the skills of the healer whose patients survived, could bring prestige to those who learned them. As we attended to the prestigious we increased our own chances for gaining the respect of those around us while editing our culture in effective ways.[i]
Cultural editing is not necessarily smooth. Even before the age of the Internet, preferential attention to the high in status could have unpredictable results. In my own work, during the 1970s, I lived among a people in Nigeria’s Middle Belt who called themselves the Migili (and whom the literature refers to as the “Koro”). Shortly before my arrival, a group of young Migili men had served in the Nigerian army. They had been astounded to learn that their revered elders were held in contempt by the surrounding Muslim, Hausa-speaking peoples, who thought of Migili as ignorant and dirty. The young men lost all respect for their elders and did the unthinkable: upon returning home they physically attacked some of the male elders, cutting off their hair because they had learned that outside the group, the elders’ hairstyle was considered laughably feminine. The organization of Migili society had been based on promotion of individuals through a series of ranks or age-grades, and the elders now refused to promote young men. Local social organization, in which the age-grades had defined roles, collapsed when the age grade of young males responded to the ending of promotion by refusing to carry out their essential responsibilities. The economic system, in which this age-grade did most of the heaviest labor communally, planting and harvesting the staple crop, yams, was transformed overnight, as was the religious system. Farming aid was now given only to one’s close relatives or to those who would fully reciprocate that aid. Most people converted either to Evangelical Christianity or Catholicism, though some embraced Islam. The society changed thoroughly and irrevocably. The organization of a society is of course part of its culture, and 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 (Barkow 1982).
The Migili case gives us some insight into the impact of social media today. In part, the Migili social collapse resulted from a change in scale – from living in their own homogeneous town and having contact with outsiders only when visiting markets, the young men were exposed to the multi-ethnic Nigerian army, and their evaluation criteria for assessing relative standing changed sharply. Modern social media represent a change in scale orders of magnitude greater, and while its effects are slower than the Migili case, over the long run they may be equally dramatic.
Movies, sports events, and the Internet are nearly global in scale. Entertainers and athletes seem to be presented as being near the top of the status hierarchy. People who get attention – who get more “hits,” more followers than others, more fans – are perceived as of high status and worthy of even more attention. Our brains evolved in small-scale societies and react to these strangers as if they were powerful and important members of our own geographic community. We often grow up wanting to be like them, and even when we consciously reject them, they influence us. Parents everywhere seem to have children who want to be film actors, or hip-hop artists, or Olympic gold medal winners.
Moving from the worlds of books and movies to the Internet has enormously increased such distributed communities while encouraging frequent and rapid electronic interaction among their residents. Sometimes large portions of a population share a media interest, as with athletics, but at other times we may dwell in and interact with an online community devoted to a single interest, say, growing garlic or agitating for better mental health services. Each online community develops its own prestige criteria and its own heroes, thereby facilitating the acquisition and editing of its own information pool.
Whether we are talking of books, films, television, or the Internet, modern mass media devalue the coin of local prestige. This devaluation results in what economists might term “opportunity cost.” Rather than wanting to be like one’s own parents, or like the successful baker down the block, or even the respected political leader, young people may want to be football heroes, or to produce videos for Youtube. They withdraw their attention from exemplars of their own local culture and may fail to acquire some of the skills and attitudes that made for success for previous generations and may be important in adapting to local environment. Everywhere, it seems, parents find themselves in the position of first generation immigrants whose children participate in a new and unfamiliar culture.
What exactly all this will mean for the future remains uncertain because we simply do not know enough about the mechanisms of cultural acquisition and editing. Are there processes that may make up at least in part for the malfunctioning of the learn-from-the-high-in-status bias? Certainly, much cultural information is transmitted very early in life, and young children usually perceive their parents as being high in the social hierarchy.
Media challenges to cultural transmission do not exist in a vacuum, either. For example, we now live more in industrial societies than in rural, agricultural communities. Almost everywhere, we are clumping together in large urban centers. This means that much of the knowledge and skills of our local prestigious figures – including our parents - may appear to be much less relevant to our lives; the prestige of these figures may have already diminished because cultural information that led to success in a rural setting may be useless in an urban context.
There are other obvious sources of social change that may put a premium on the creation of knowledge rather than its transmission from elders. For example, we may live in a period of changing economic conditions, of warfare and religious conflict, of technological developments, and of demographic change. Research on who and what young people are attending to and what they respect and what they are learning, and how these differ from what was learned and respected by earlier generations, is always needed. Sorting out changes in mass media-related prestige-biased cultural transmission from these other sources of social change will challenge researchers. Except in one case.
What happens when extreme groups use the Internet to proselytize, perhaps targeting individuals who, for whatever reason, do not see themselves as succeeding in finding a respected place within their own society, or who fail to see that society as itself prestigious? What happens when the extreme group can convince their targets that they represent the most prestigious and powerful individual in the universe, the monotheistic god? Such extremists can become powerful and prestigious attention attractors. One convert may share the newly acquired worldview and values with age-mates, resulting in a cluster of recruits. Just as the Migili young men could attack the elders they had been raised to revere, so can the targets of Internet extreme groups turn violently against the people around them, or simply give their lives over to strangers with their own ends. The result is not merely cultural editing, here, or even social-cultural collapse: the result can be extreme violence.[ii]
I never tire of writing that “biology is destiny only if we ignore it” (Barkow 2003). Adolescent status consciousness is a product of evolution, adaptive because it led individuals to learn preferentially from those more rather than less likely to have useful knowledge to impart, with the added benefit of helping to edit the larger culture in adaptive ways. Today, this evolved trait is having the unforeseen result of turning young people all over the world into pop stars and athletes rather than their striving to become like local successes; it is also being deliberately exploited by extreme groups to create terrorists. With the risk of offending those involved with the fast and factory food industries, let me conclude by drawing a parallel. We evolved to seek the tastes of salt, fat, and sweetness because, in earlier environments, these were reliable guides to scarce and valuable nutrients – they were indicators of nutrition. Today, these evolved preferences are exploited by industry to produce profitable but often dangerously unhealthy products. As with preferential attention to the high in status, our own evolved psychology is being turned against us. In both cases, our immediate reaction is to use cultural, religious, and moral systems against those responsible, trying to use shame and the label of “evil” to in effect lower the relative standing of those exploiting our evolved psychology for their own ends. I think our immediate reaction is right.
If we can lower the perceived relative standing of those who either deliberately or inadvertently are causing the editing of our cultures in unhealthy ways, they will no longer be automatic attractors of attention. Rather than the susceptible learning preferentially from them, their messages will be ignored and deleted. If we can raise the perceived status of local people capable of providing locally relevant, useful information, these individuals will not need to ask for the attention of the young, they will already have it.
Strategies require tactics, however, and a strategy of seeking to control the apparent relative standing of potential attractors of attention will require an array of tactics adapted to local situations, ideally with researchers devising means of measuring their effectiveness. Such an effort would raise not only the “how” question but the “whom” question: whom do we trust to manipulate the future of the cultures in which we participate? Unfortunately but not unexpectedly, this brief essay has raised far more questions than it has answered.
[i] Chance makes a distinction between attention based on fear and hedonic attention based on respect. Barkow, O’Gorman, and Rendell (2013) and Barkow (2014) argue that in real-life relationships fear and respect are often intermingled, though one or the other may be dominant. Where fear attention predominates, learning tends to be limited to avoiding the threat represented by the other. Hedonic attention, however, enables a broad range of learning from its object.
[ii] This account necessarily oversimplifies the appeal of groups such as ISIS because the intent here is to focus on a single evolved mechanism, preferential attention to the high in status. For a broad and insightful discussion of the appeal of ISIS in particular, see Atran (2015).
Atran, Scott. (2015). ISIS is a Revolution. AEON, Dec. 15.
Barkow, Jerome H. (1976). Attention Structure and Internal Representations. In Michael R. A. Chance & Raymond R. Larsen (Eds.), The Social Structure of Attention (pp. 203-219). London: Wiley.
Barkow, J. H. (1982). Return to nepotism: The collapse of a Nigerian gerontocracy. International Journal of Political Science Review, 3, 33-49.
Barkow, Jerome H. (1989). Darwin, Sex, and Status: Biological Approaches to Mind and Culture. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Barkow, Jerome H. (2003). Biology is destiny only if we ignore it. World Futures, 59, 173-188.
Barkow, Jerome H. (2014). Prestige and the ongoing process of culture revision. The Psychology of Social Status (pp. 29-46). New York: Springer Science+Business Media
Barkow, Jerome H., O’Gorman, Rick, & Rendell, Luke. (2012). Are the new mass media subverting cultural transmission? Review of General Psychology, 16(2), 121-133. doi: 10.1037/a0027907
Barkow, Jerome H., O’Gorman, Rick, & Rendell, Luke. (2013). Cultural transmission. In R. Jon McGee & Richard L. Warms (Eds.), Theory in Social and Cultural Anthropology: An Encyclopedia (Vol. 1, pp. 154-158). Thousand Oaks, California: Sage.
Chance, Michael R. A. (1967). Attention structure as the basis of primate social rank. Man, 2, 503-518.
Chance, Michael R.A., & Larsen, Raymond R. (Eds.). (1976). The Social Structure of Attention. London: Wiley.
Darwin, Charles. (1839/1909). Voyage of the Beagle. New York: P. F. Collier & son.
Fessler, Daniel M. T. (2007). Steps toward an Evolutionary Psychology of a Culture-Dependent Species. In Peter Carruthers, Stephen Lawrence & Stephen Stich (Eds.), The Innate Mind: Volume 2: Culture and Cognition (Vol. 2, pp. 61-77). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Mesoudi, Alex. (2016). Cultural evolution: integrating psychology, evolution and culture. Current Opinion in Psychology, 7, 17-22. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2015.07.001
Mesoudi, A., Chang, L., Dall, S.X., & Thornton, A. (in press Jan 2016). The evolution of individual and cultural variation in social learning. Trends in Ecology and Evolution. doi: 10.1016/j.tree.2015.12.012
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.
Indeed, a few minutes spent at Cato’s Humanprogress.org 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.
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.”
In Today’s World, Cultural Stasis Isn’t an Option
The claim that the Internet—the most potent tool of information dissemination yet devised by humanity—will undermine cultural transmission ought to sound counterintuitive on its face. What really worries Jerome Barkow, of course, is not the possibility that cultural transmission as such will be jeopardized, but that one form of it will be supplanted by another: that the hierarchical reproduction of presumptively adaptive local norms and values will be disrupted by the frenetic lateral transmission of invasive mimetic species. Yet our experience with the mass-Internet to date provides both reason to doubt that its disruptive cultural effects will be as drastic as Barkow fears—and reason to doubt that we should regard it as a net negative to the extent it does occur.
The most ominous poster child for Barkow’s worst-case scenario is the soi-disant Islamic State, the revanchist death cult whose mastery of social media—the headlines regularly warn us—enables it to plant ideological cuckoo’s eggs in impressionable young brains, transforming disaffected teens into wild-eyed jihadis. But some perspective is in order. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper estimated last year that some 180 young Americans had flown to Syria to join ISIS—and while any number greater than “none” is surely disturbing, that represents about 0.0036% of the 3.3 million-strong U.S. Muslim population, which (again, at least in the United States) scarcely qualifies as a mass phenomenon. Moreover, the Soufan Group, an intelligence consulting firm, argues that the role of social media in ISIS recruitment has been overstated relative to the importance of old-fashioned, face-to-face social networks and personal ties:
The eight young men who left the Lisleby district of Fredrikstad, Norway, to join the Islamic State in Syria did not join because of social media, even if it did help spread the group’s message. All were reportedly motivated to join the Islamic State by the example of Abdullah Chaib, a charismatic local soccer player who traveled to Syria in 2012. The small group of friends created a feedback loop of motivation and encouragement that did not depend on Twitter or Facebook. Likewise, the terror recruit cluster in Molenbeek, Belgium thrived on networks built around friendship and familial ties, not Telegram or Kik. This same dynamic of peer-to-peer recruitment and consistent face-to-face interaction produced the cluster in the Minneapolis-Saint Paul region of Minnesota. Long-time foreign fighter hotbeds such as Derna, Libya, and Bizerte and Ben Gardane in Tunisia rely on decidedly offline networks to export extremism.
When it comes to the most prominent, radical, and unambiguously toxic example of a disruptive meme complex, then, the evidence to date should give us some modicum of reassurance—its appeal remains relatively marginal, and in any event is not wholly the Internet-driven phenomenon popular media portrayals might lead us to imagine.
ISIS, of course, is only the most extreme case—and it would be modest comfort if Barkow’s disruptive scenario were merely unfolding in some less dramatically lethal form. What about Internet-driven disruption of local values more generally? While I’m not aware of any direct measure of how faithfully teens are assimilating local values on the whole, the annual Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey may provide a useful proxy of how closely the rising generation is hewing to adult expectations. The data there, as summed up by a recent Vox report, suggests that “today’s teenagers are among the best-behaved on record.” Compared with their parents’ generation in the early 1990s—the last cohort to come of age before the advent of the mass Internet—contemporary teens are less likely to smoke, to drink heavily, or to become pregnant. As measured by all the classic loci of parental anxiety, in short, today’s teens are unusual only in how faithfully they conform to the standards of behavior most parents seek to impose.
One reason we’re not seeing evidence of disrupted cultural transmission—at least not in forms more profound than a preference for LOLcat memes over Jane Austen novels—may be that teens now experience the online world differently than, say, I did as a student in the 1990s. Before the Internet reached its current level of mass adoption, going online almost necessarily meant routinely interacting with widely dispersed strangers—a social world far removed from one’s geographically proximate friends and acquaintances. Now, as danah boyd observes in her illuminating study of online teen behavior It’s Complicated, things are different:
Although the technology makes it possible in principle to socialize with anyone online, in practice teens connect to the people that they know and with whom they have the most in common.
The online world of modern teens, in other words, substantially replicates their offline social worlds, reinforcing rather than disrupting local norms. And it’s not just their peers, but their parents whom teens find sharing their online spaces. The extensive interviews boyd conducted in her research reveal that—as a side effect of false but pervasive perceptions of a more dangerous world—teen socialization is moving from parentally unmonitored public spaces to environments more amenable to adult supervision, online or off. A parent who can see their child’s Facebook wall has unprecedented visibility into their child’s social network and influences—and many teens reported that their parents insist on knowing their social media passwords, giving them access to even private interactions. Thus, even as teens are potentially exposed to a wider array of far-flung social influences, parents have a far greater ability to observe those influences and guide how their children respond.
All this notwithstanding, Barkow is nevertheless surely correct that a highly networked and interconnected world is one in which local cultures will not reproduce themselves with the level of uncomplicated fidelity we’ve been accustomed to in most of human history. But neither is it clear this is a wholly negative development. As a 2014 NPR story observed, gay teens—especially those in small towns that may lack anything resembling a local gay culture—have turned to the Internet in large numbers for social support and reassurance. The online “It Gets Better” movement explicitly targets such teens with the message that the sense of isolation and stigma they may experience locally as young adults will not characterize the rest of their lives. If the Internet undermines the “transmission” of homophobic or sexist parental norms, surely that’s a cause for celebration rather than lament, at least for those who don’t subscribe to those ideas.
Along similar lines, some research suggests that the Internet is also, quite modestly, disrupting the transmission of religious faith. As teens are exposed to the diversity of world religions—and to religious skepticism—some come to see the faith into which they were born as precisely an accident of birth, undermining its claim to their automatic or “natural” allegiance. While this is doubtless a source of dismay for more religious parents, secular Americans will be apt to see it as a healthy development: Whatever one’s reaction, it can’t be separated from one’s stance on the underlying value dispute.
Finally, and perhaps most generally, I think it’s necessary to question the tacit premise—embedded in Barkow’s anecdote about the Migili—that young people are best served by adopting the traditional cultural norms that have evolved in and adapted to their geographically local context. Though the analogy has surface plausibility, it is simply not the case that children are bringing values from the Internet into an otherwise smoothly functioning isolated local culture. Rather, the cultural context for teens and adults alike is now that of an interconnected global network: The global is already the local context. The days when children could count on simply carrying on the trade of their parents and grandparents are gone. Listicles detailing the “jobs that don’t exist anymore because of technology” or “high-paying jobs that didn’t exist a decade ago” are themselves a clichéd subgenre of sorts. I owe my own career largely to a blog I began writing in college, which led to a long stint in online journalism, and ultimately to my current position at Cato. And that teen who’s more interested in being a YouTube celebrity than following in dad’s footsteps at the auto plant? Well, call it the disruption of cultural transmission if you like—but in an economy already irreversibly disrupted by technological change, you could also call it the next savvy adaptation.
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.
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. 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.
 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.
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.
Reply to Sanchez: Don’t We All Agree?
I had hoped to see discussion of the evolved mechanism of preferential attention to and learning from the high in status, and my assertion that it is simultaneously a way in which our species makes culture adaptive in changing circumstances, while also providing individuals a potential pathway to prestige and status. Since none of the three commentators have taken issue with this theory may I assume that they agree that it is correct?
Of course, Sanchez is right to argue that thus far Internet recruitment to terrorist groups has been limited in the United States, and face-to-face recruitment is important. That is why I carefully wrote that “One [Internet] convert may share the newly acquired worldview and values with age-mates, resulting in a cluster of recruits.”
I do not know danah boyd’s work but have no reason to doubt Sanchez’s summary of her findings that “The online world of modern teens, in other words, substantially replicates their offline social worlds, reinforcing rather than disrupting local norms.” Sanchez goes on to tell us that she reports that the young are not primarily communicating with strangers but with people they know. Unfortunately, these findings are of marginal relevance to the essay. What, for example, of celebrity? Following someone on Twitter and being a fan are forms of communication, one-way communication. So are celebrity endorsements and visits to celebrity websites. Does a young person’s choice of celebrity being followed influence cultural editing – values, behavior, career goals, friendships?[i] If danah boyd’s work answers these questions then it is relevant to my essay. If not, then it is not (or at least, not yet, given that my hope is to encourage the research community to ask questions stemming from the theory of human nature that is evolutionary psychology).
Sanchez also points out that the current generation is less given to breaking the rules than his own was. This comment is interesting but only slightly relevant – nothing in my essay demands that adolescents whose attention is on non-local figures should be particularly unruly. Again, here are some research questions that would yield pertinent data permitting evaluation of the theory: What are young people striving to be, who are their role-models, and what are they learning from them? Are they acquiring socially valuable goals and potentially effective tactics for obtaining them? What proportion of young people pay much attention to Bill Gates and to the life of the late Steve Jobs, as compared to the proportion who are experts on the lives of, say, Kanye West or Lady Gaga? What is the social impact of the displacement of attention from more local figures to international celebrities? Again, these are research questions, and I hope that they will help readers and especially commentators identify relevant from tangential research.
Back when I was still teaching, I would often begin my course on human nature by choosing a couple of current celebrity names and starting a conversation about them. The students invariably knew about the celebrities’ romantic lives in considerable detail, their health, their taste in clothing, their origins, their career trajectory, and their relative standing compared to celebrities in the same category. Then I would ask the students to tell me about a successful, prestigious figure in their own neighborhood. I would usually be met by silence. A similar question about local political figures would garner few facts.
This opening would permit me to reassure them that they had no reason to be ashamed because their preferential attention to the high-in-status evolved mechanism had been adaptive for their ancestors but was now being triggered by the modern mass media, with evolutionarily unanticipated consequences. Celebrity culture is not new, but it has exploded in the age of the Internet. Websites keep fans informed and provide fora for discussion, while Twitter gives the sense of having a personal conversation with a celebrity. Celebrities are an example of the kinds of strangers I had in mind in my essay, strangers whose prestige vastly overpowers that of local figures.
Sanchez writes that “Barkow is nevertheless surely correct that a highly networked and interconnected world is one in which local cultures will not reproduce themselves with the level of uncomplicated fidelity we’ve been accustomed to in most of human history. But neither is it clear this is a wholly negative development.” No, it is not always negative, as Tufekci convincingly argues. But who is suggesting that cultures formerly reproduced with “uncomplicated fidelity”? I don’t know if they ever did (though the rate of change was probably slower, in the past). The issue is that the preferential-attention-to-the-high-in-status mechanism is one way in which cultures have tended to be pruned of useless information while incorporating new and at least sometimes effective information, but that internet prestige has changed their relative proportions. Today we may be editing in a larger proportion of the useless and a smaller proportion of the locally and personally effective, while pertinent information associated with those physically (and even geographically) close to us may fail to be transmitted.[ii] Certainly, when Internet celebrities warn their followers of the grave risks of standard immunizations, while the followers ignore the advice of their own doctors, not merely useless but harmful information is being spread. Of course, celebrities can and often do promote healthy lifestyles or direct their followers’ attention to major social problems, they do not necessarily limit themselves to product endorsements. I am digressing a bit but my point is that fidelity of information transmission is not the issue.
By paying attention to whom is paid attention, researchers will have another tool with which to further understand how modern society and culture are evolving. It is a shame that danah boyd has already used the “it’s complicated” phrase in the title of her book: we can be certain that the words would be applicable to the current effects of the pay-attention-to-and-learn-preferentially-from-the-high-in-status mechanism. Do human societies risk becoming dysfunctional and deeply divided when the young do not agree on who is prestigious and to whom they should attend? Does this process add to political turmoil? If so, then our long-term strategies should include research on how to encourage consensus on who is to be respected.
In the meantime, here is an experiment we can all do: I can usually begin a conversation with parents by saying, “kids, nowadays…”, and then just shaking my head before sitting back to listen. The parents’ discourse will usually allude to their offspring paying much attention to and learning from some nonlocal figure whom the parent knows little about but whom their offspring revere. If my experience turns out to be common then perhaps my essay will help persuade researchers and funding agencies that studying the attend-to-and-learn-preferentially-from-the-high-in-status mechanism would be worthwhile. Even Sanchez might be persuaded.
[i] For an introduction to the evolutionary study of celebrity see: De Backer, Charlotte. (2012). “Blinded by the Starlight: An Evolutionary Framework for Studying Celebrity Culture and Fandom.” Review of General Psychology, 16(2), 144-151.
[ii] This is my contention and belief but I would love to see research on the issue, especially if the research shows that I am wrong. More likely, it will find that it is true only under specific circumstances.
The Importance of Emphasizing Past Successes
Jerome Barkow writes that his lead 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 apologies if, in my earlier responses, I read too much into Prof. Barkow’s lead essay. That essay did strike me as suggesting that the Internet (1) makes possible personal connections for young people that dilute the influence of older, evolved mechanisms of cultural transmission, and therefore (2) creates a real possibility that that the “good” cultural norms that today make our modern world possible will eventually be overtaken by “bad” cultural norms that will destroy, or at least significantly damage, our civilization.
I do understand that to identify the possibility of a bad outcome is not necessarily to predict that bad outcome. We humans are intelligent creatures who learn – and an important stimulus to learning is a warning about the consequences that will befall us if we refuse to learn.
Further, I fully support Prof. Barkow’s call for “research on our evolved psychology and to take that research into account in our efforts to understand current sociocultural change.” Such research, well and carefully done, cannot help but to improve our knowledge. But I do worry that it will be used to justify inappropriate restrictions on human freedom.
Deirdre McCloskey recently wrote that “[f]or reasons [she doesn’t] understand, people simply love to be told that the sky is falling.” In addition, people seem eager to believe that the sky is indeed falling. Because changes in the modes of cultural transmission will create at least some new modes – and because we can never know for sure just how evolved human psychology will interact with those new modes – we’ll never be able to predict with any precision what will be the effects on culture of new modes of cultural transmission. In every case, even the most careful and brilliant researcher will be able offer only a range of possibilities. This range will almost certainly include some gloomy ones. And while it might also contain some happy possibilities, the gloomy ones will receive disproportionate public and (hence) political attention. Not only, again, do people seem to love to be told that things are getting worse, but those who seek greater political power will have more success if they convince the public that doom looms on the horizon.
Nothing I say here should be interpreted as a plea, or even as a hint, to avoid further research. I do not for a moment believe that scientific research should in any way, shape, or form be stymied or avoided because of its possible political implications. What I say here is, instead, a prediction – namely, that the possibility that the Internet will coarsen or damage culture will be seized upon by the fearful and by the politically opportunistic as sufficient justification for government-imposed restrictions on online activities, as well as on the growth of social media.
To counter such a reaction – and to counter it scientifically, with history and reason – it is appropriate to emphasize that the Internet is not the first technology to disrupt established modes of cultural transmission. It is appropriate to remind readers that today’s fears of the unknown future that is being unlocked by the Internet share much in common with past fears of the unknown future unlocked by the telegraph or the television.
Of course tomorrow can differ significantly and unprecedentedly from yesterday. Indeed, it almost certainly will differ significantly and unprecedentedly. But history teaches us that “unpredictable results and … disruptive change” are nothing new and that, despite their unpredictability and disruptiveness, they have more often than not in modern, liberal society improved rather than worsened humanity’s lot in general and human culture in particular. This history lesson cannot be repeated too often.