To start, a definition of culture: “the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes a group.”
The ancient Babylonians, the Nordic Vikings, the 13th century Christians, the Mongol hordes, the Florentines of the Renaissance, and the modern day following of Kim Kardashian are all examples of groups of people united by culture. Groups of people think, speak, and act in the world in learned ways from other people, thus allowing individuals to cohesively live together and work towards common goals.
The homo sapien is a social species. Much of our intelligence evolved due to 1) groups of people being able to survive better than individuals 2) those most able to reproduce within the group being able to produce the most healthy offspring.
We certainly see social structures in many other animals, to name apes, dolphins, and wolves as a representative few. The purpose of this article however is not to go into detail about the history of human or animal cultures, but to make a single argument: in the modern world culture is evolving based on the most fundamental units of how the human mind consumes and processes information, and is without historical precedence.
Culture Molds the Mind
When discussion of old television shows come up, my father sometimes mentions “Leave it to Beaver” in the 1950s as a show that “taught Americans how to act. The father went to work, the mother took care of the home, the clothing, language, and mannerisms all portrayed what it meant to be the perfect American family.”
This was most probably a conscious attempt at creating and spreading culture. It was likely rationalized as good for the nation, good for the economy, and maybe even for the people. In other words: leadership tried to mold culture to their design.
This conscious molding of culture by an elite is as old as human civilization itself, a combination of reward and punishment mechanisms being the units of behavior propagation (lower level feedback mechanisms should be studied in all complex systems). Religion has played this role of feedback mechanisms in many societies. Fascist Germany and the Soviet Union are two recent examples of the state being the social pivot rather than an otherworldly entity. Societies in ancient Egypt or South America had leadership that were considered literal deities by the people, and offer examples of the merging of state and religion.
Units Of Interaction
To have a chance of deriving insights to complex systems such as human societies, we must first start at lower level units of interaction. A good starting unit in this case is the individual, or perhaps more precisely the way in which an individual human mind processes sensory stimulus to eventually become cognition and behavior.
Now this fundamental unit (the human mind) is reasonably complex itself, and a logical step would be to try to break it down further by discussing individual brain functions in detail such as dopamine release in the lateral prefrontal cortex. That level of abstraction however is likely not the most useful for this discussion as it pulls us into a neuroscience rather than social behavior conversation.
What Could Have Been
So first, let’s start with a thought experiment. Imagine an infinite number of ways civilization could have evolved. Movies such as Mad Max, Planet of the Apes, or Idiocracy can act as seeds for the imagination, but infinity is a large set. What if emotions such as fear, jealousy, anger, or ambition never needed to exist? Does the world exist now in approximately the only way it could just as a die thrown 100 billion times will have a relatively even distribution of each number rolled? Or is everything it means to be human today a chance accumulation of histories small probabilities adding up? Were different environmental conditions, natural predators, comets landed, ideas propagated, wars won, or bombs developed different diverging branches chosen on a tree of nearly infinite and variable paths to the present?
These are difficult questions, but the point is it is unlikely that the world exists today in the only way it could have, and that the civilization and cultural norms of today are specific to the branches chosen in the infinite tree that is the all the possibilities of existence up to present.
Which variables caused the effect that is the world today? How will the effects of today act as the causes that affect tomorrow?
Popular Culture as an Effect
The good news is that it’s not necessary to understand in detail the last several billion years of life’s evolution on our planet to gain insights into man buns, neck tattoos, drug addiction, or the political debate surrounding the label on the room in which we release our biological waste after energy absorption.
The current state of things is all around us, and the immediate past of civilization, along with scientific progress and our recent insights into the natural world, has been exhaustively documented allowing for discussions of interpolation and prediction.
We know that culture has historically had great variability. Compare for instance Islamic, Russian, and Chinese dynasties in the 12th century. Quickly imagine the clothing, language, architecture, beliefs, and morals of these groups. The diversity says much about the human mind and what we are all capable of being. It speaks to our creativity and adaptability. If born into these distinct times and places we would become these people (assuming physical/racial conformity).
Who we are is dependent on what we have known. What we have known is little more than a chance birth in time and space.
Historically, information travelled slowly and cultures tended to meld with immediate neighbors through diffusion or military conquest. Word of mouth, horses, and hand written words spread information. If we think we live in a world of Fake News today, the world of yesterday was likely orders of magnitude more fake. There was no fact checking, no source of truth, no sense of reason underpinning events. If a story was compelling enough or came from an authority, it was believed.
And just as the historical world did, the modern world molds us to its image. Every thought, feeling, fantasy, and desire exists due to the sensory stimulus that has been carving our brains since birth. There is no reason to start a conversation on free will in this essay, but I assure you, if it exists, it’s effects are limited at the level of the individual. Every individual’s mind is a function of his or her environment.
In the modern world, many of the inefficiencies and irrational behaviors of the cultures of the past are dying. Why worship an Emperor as a God when he has DNA just like everyone else? Why wear a traditional gown when you can wear Dolce & Gabbana on your quest to climb the social ladder and join the ranks of the rich and powerful? Why follow a set of morals and behaviors that will provide only condescension and disadvantage from businuess peers? Why embrace the ideas of previous generations that won’t help you thrive in an exponentially evolving world?
Our culture used to be our identity, the only way things were, and the way they had to be. We didn’t have television and travel, and even if we were briefly aware of other peoples we looked at them as strange and as inferior. Of course our dress, dance, and intricate rituals during sacrifice to the God of Fertile Wheat Harvest taught to us by our family and leaders were true, to believe anything else was the path to alienation and starvation.
With a reasonably clear thinking mind and a general belief in science comes a certain unavoidable sense of philosophical nihilism. This is a problem in the present, and will likely become worse in the future. The ground truth is gone, the cement provided by traditional story has turned to quick sand.
And nihilism feels bad, so we pick and choose something easy to believe but that still allows us to focus the majority of our attention on surviving in the modern world.
The Need for More
Some argue that materialism is the new world culture. The desire for clothing that provides clues to social status and personality traits, a more beautiful house with a better view, a more impressive mountain to climb in a remote location, and a more extravagant vacation are just a few examples of the desire for more.
Striving to accumulate scarce resources in relation to the neighbor is not new, or even a distinctly human trait. Many primate studies have provided evidence for the propensity to compare. Even the ever smiling Golden Retriever shows sparks of jealousy.
The royalty of the past, the only ones with the means to collect scarce resources, lived lavishly with the projection of power being at least one driving force. Those that could were the ones that did. In the modern world we have assembly lines and global supply chains. Instead of a purple gown being reserved for a nation’s royalty, it is accessible to even the lowest socioeconomic classes.
We, unfortunately, do not compare ourselves to the people of the past, or even those less fortunate in the present. We compare ourselves to those with more. And our digital worlds provide ample examples of those with more.
I’ve personally been to over 20+ countries, and am likely more well travelled than 99.99% of human beings living before the invention of the airplane. Instead of hunting or farming all day to collect enough energy to survive, I get in a car and drive to a grocery store with a far greater selection of food than most of history’s kings have known. I stare at pixels projecting from screens to feed my mind’s cravings for… something; partly to relieve the luxury of boredom.
And at times, I am not grateful. I desire more and am unsatisfied. I get jealous, or depressed, or angry, or afraid. I am at times compelled by feelings to perform actions that don’t improve my life, or the world of others.
Call this human nature, an instantaneous state after pathways in the mind react to stimulus, or dark seeds a religious deity planted in the breast to test convictions. Why emotions, the forces that drive behavior, exist, does not change that they exist.
And the instantaneous emotions and behaviors of all individual people define precisely the popular culture of today and provide clues towards the possibilities of tomorrow. Be warned however, making predictions in complex systems far simpler than cumulative human behavior has proved futile.
Freedom In Society
History has many examples of a great variety of levels of freedom in ancient societies. From early legal systems such as Hammurabi’s code describing the rights of slave owners and slaves, to caste systems in India where melanin percentages in skin cells influenced social standing and rights.
Even in the recent past and in powerful states, social systems vary from strictly controlled government propaganda machines to “free markets” where capitalism and human demand drive social norms. And different sides of a spectrum always have their strengths and weaknesses. One creates uniformity of thought which can prevent rebellion and create some semblance of social stability, one creates (and attempts to embrace) diversity of opinion acting as the foundation for the creativity and progress that has revolutionized nearly all aspects of society in the last 75–300 years.
Again, the existence of both teach us much about the human mind, it’s adaptability, and the various forms of society and modes of thought we are capable of conforming to.
Strong central institutions prove most people are willing to conform to modes of thought if specific emotional drivers exist, for example the fear of God, an enemy state, or even starvation. The instinct for survival is powerful indeed.
Free societies on the other hand, unveil an enormous amount about the human mind, as what becomes is a projection of the mind’s insatiable cravings.
Imagine a strict authoritarian society to be a coloring book where the goal is to color within the lines, and a free society is an art university with endless funding for artistic tools and artistic mediums. The former may provide small instances for creativity such as the brush stroke chosen, but the latter enables endless variations of artistic work as new are melded with existing ideas to create novel combinations again and again.
What does this canvas, that is present day culture in free societies, tell us about the human mind?
Just as “Leave it to Beaver” influenced how a people behaved, the media (and social media) of the recent present play a fundamental role in culture and civilization.
By scrolling through the thousands of television channels available, the most liked posts on social media, or the most clicked news links on the net, you are getting a sense of what the human mind is compelled to produce and consume.
It excites our minds, it’s addictive, it enforces our worldviews. It offers immediate sensory and emotional feedback. It changes the chemistry of our brains, just as all sensory information does in subtle ways. “America’s Got Talent”, “How To Catch a Murderer”, and “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” exist because they are optimized better than the other innumerable theoretical alternatives that could exist to get people to spend their limited conscious life with their eyes and ears absorbing the sensory information propelled into their brains from the media device.
This media is very influential; it teaches us how to act and behave. And even if you personally don’t watch a lot of television, or go on the internet, or read books, you absorb culture from classmates, co-workers, or people at the convenience store. From women’s rights activism to the thug life, ideas are propagated at the speed of electron travel, and those ideas that catch and spread are those most optimized to do so based on the instantaneous state of the complex system; that is human civilization and the minds that make it up.
Interpreting the Canvas
So what does it say about the human mind that a certain subset of us watch “Keeping Up with the Kardashians?” (I apologize to any fans reading). I’m not sure I’ve ever watched a full episode, but I will guess there is information on style, sexuality, rhetoric, body language, gender roles, humor, acceptable emotional reactions, morality, general values, etc. All stimulus is information, and it all plays a role in forging our mind.
I was on a road trip recently, and asked a man working at a hotel if it would be convenient to take an Uber to a certain restaurant. Dripping with disdain he replied: “We don’t use Uber, we use taxis around here.” What caught me off guard was the force of his statement, the anger and the confidence, as if he knew Uber was some evil upon his world. Now I can imagine loathing an enemy force attempting to rape and pillage one’s homeland, but that much rage at an app on his cellphone that has been a utility to millions of people throughout the world? Uber must at least have pros and cons. I bring this story up not to discuss ride sharing, but to provide an example of this man’s freedom for emotional conviction. Has he studied the history of public transportation, measured the rise in the use of ride sharing or number of cars purchased per capita, analyzed predictive models on the future of transportation, studied the intricacies of carbon output on atmospheric conditions per vehicle? Does he understand the effects of technology on social structures, the history and evolution of vehicle engineering and the potentials of algorithm powered control systems, the construction of roads and the mitigation of traffic, or the internet making this app possible and its effects on human civilization generally? Has he taken any steps whatsoever to understand why he feels the way he does? My immediate impression was that it was unlikely. It is much more likely that in his subculture it was common to loathe Uber, possibly due to a general neophobic predisposition.
And in a free society he has every right to believe with force in things that he does not understand, just as we all do, and do every day.
Why do we take our jobs so seriously? Our homes? Our income? Our passions? Our ideas? Our Haircuts? We are taught what to think and feel, and only creative combinations and variations of ideas can be called our own. And even these are very limited and generally not unique.
We are not learning culture from our family and neighbors as was the case for nearly all of human history. We are all learning from the same social influencers hundreds or thousands of miles away from a Hollywood Studio, a Berlin advertising agency, or a Mumbai basement through Youtube.
And yes, the influencers are all actors. Who knows, maybe social media is teaching us all to become actors ourselves, perpetually on stage.
What we are attracted to and what succeeds is not due to chance alone. It appeals to our most primal cravings. Hunger, sex, laughter, love, fear, the desire to gossip, and curiosity are just a few emotions we experience. And for each, modern society offers copious stimulation for these pathways in the mind.
What Works Is What Exists
What works tells us about ourselves. Just as water flows downhill towards the path of least resistance, our minds balance survival with energy preservation. It is far easier to jump on the propaganda train when discussing immigration than to think critically about complex global migrations of people taking into account the history of national self-interest and the global supply and demand cycles of labor and resources with respect to the growth of technology in all corners of the globe.
And importantly, I mean that literally. It takes great energy and time resources to carve cognitive models into the mind. Although neural pathways are “flexible”, one can not easily teach a first grader particle physics. Years of context for a particular subject of discourse must be built up.
Sometimes we wonder why people are stubborn, why they refuse to see the other side of a story, why we suffer from confirmation bias and are all looking for validation of our ideas and tend to ignore information to the contrary. I believe the answer is because strong/old beliefs exist as deeply enforced neural networks inside the brain, and it is simply impractical or impossible for the mind to integrate information that contradicts and possibly corrodes that wiring, especially if it is too foundational to the existing network (think an argument about religion or politics). It is an energy intensive, chemically intensive, time intensive process to rewire concepts inside the mind. The more hardwired they are and connected to other mental models, the more difficult to unwind.
To restate: ideas, culture, and potential modes of behavior have physical manifestations inside the mind. Just as one should not expect a dolphin to fly due to the physical laws of nature, one should not expect people to behave in a way contrary to how they can behave based on the current state of their mind’s neuronal networks. When this understanding resonates as intuition it can be both serenely uplifting and somberly discouraging.
Paths of Least Resistance
Violence, narcissism, hedonism, materialism, anti-intellectualism, racism, and sexism are primal. They all have evolutionary and historical precedence. Addiction to drugs, tattoos, music, social media, dating apps, or high calorie foods may have slightly less historical precedence as they exist in modern forms due to recent technological innovations, but their effects on mechanisms in the mind should make the reasons for their cultural proliferation clear.
Studying lower level feedback loops is vital to unraveling the mysteries of complex systems. In the free societies many of us live in today, we are endlessly bombarded with stimulation thoroughly optimized to create chemical surges inside our minds inevitably inducing behavior.
This level of stimulation is unprecedented for our species; the biological effects of the modern world on our brains is history’s ongoing experiment. The proportion of information a single mind can integrate relative to the amount of information available for it to consume is decreasing exponentially.
These stimulation surges come in many forms: the congratulatory pat on the back from a parent after scoring well on a test, the feeling of acceptance after stealing drugs from a rival gang, the taste of a Big Mac, a Netflix binge session, a hit of methamphetamine, glancing at a Victoria Secret poster whilst strolling through the city, the underground afterparty rave, the business deal closed, the number of likes on an Insta-post, a new pair of shoes, or imagining what it would feel like to sit in the corner office or the waterfall pool in Hawaii.
Historically, emotions leading to behaviors that tended to cause social instabilities were effectively controlled with spiritual, cultural, and legal systems (at least enough so that we are here today). For example, self-awareness and compassion can be learned with careful adherence to Buddhist teachings thus creating a more harmonious people. But the pressures on the mind are increasing at exponential rates. To use a physical analogy, one should be cautious when boiling liquids in a covered pot; as the heat rises and the pressure increases, only precisely engineered equipment and adequate release valves can prevent fracture.
Without the cultural stories of the past (those that directly contradict the modern narrative of scientific thought) we have lost a proven guide for morality, thought, and action. And what we have left are the social norms and legal systems of the state, and an explosion of information being pumped into our minds, all iteratively being improved to maximize effects on neuronal chemistry.
There is no wise authority guiding our evolution, there is no scientific method, there is little to no long term strategy for influencing the daily lives of the people of the world. There is simply trial and error, winning through competition, the hope that the complex system that is our world and the individuals in it will adapt to ever rapidly changing conditions, that we will find ways to survive and play a positive role in keeping the marvelously complex and interconnected system that is modernity stable.
Some suggest the pressure is building. Undoubtedly, so is the technology for pressure containment. The balance of the competing forces remains unknown.
Popular Culture is the external projection of the diversity and cravings of the human mind. Instead of judging thy neighbor and feeling disdain for the norms that don’t resonate in your world view, try remembering that your perspective is not your own. Science tell us it is little more than the interaction between the mind’s genetic predisposition to build neural pathways and the environmental and sensory inputs that have influenced you since your conception as a fertilized egg.
Steven Pinker argues we live in the safest time in human history. Noam Chomsky argues we are in great danger. These are very intelligent men, they have wildly different perceptions and messages. If society’s statistical anomalies in higher education and complex thought can’t agree, where does that leave the less the brilliant among us (nearly all of us)? By definition, lost and confused.
In the modern world cultural ideas are both iterative and recursive; and as the unit of culture is the individual, and since evolution is slow, we should expect to both move forward and for history to repeat itself (as the unit has not changed but the environment has). Repetition of the past could be as innocent as haircuts coming in and out of style, or as sinister as the re-emergence of humanity’s most sinful acts.
We are living in a time of such unprecedented complexity that the most brilliant and/or powerful among us can do little more than experiment and design risk mitigation strategies based on projected estimations. As the public, we know very little about the variables of the function they are trying to optimize.
So, stop being so confident. Your opinions aren’t yours. Your world view is skewed, you believe what has been projected into you. Revel in the beauty and complexity of the modern world, do not be afraid to step above the noise of the changing winds of popular culture, try to think clearly, but never take your own world view too seriously. The world is far too complex for you to understand it, let alone for you to make confident predictions of it. So build probabilistic models, test your theories, be humble as it is irrational to be anything but humble, and hope your world view is zoomed out enough for your risk mitigation strategies to include what’s coming.