Cultural Transmission in the Digital Age
Think for a moment about where you grew up. You wore certain clothes every day and for special occasions, you probably had a more elaborate outfit. You were also, for the most part, shown how to cook foods in certain ways and probably had certain foods that were used at special events (and you tried not to spill food on the special clothes too.) Perhaps too, you were taught a certain kind of music and songs. All of these things are aspects of culture. They are transmitted to us by parents, other family members and people of influence in our society, like teachers and coaches.
Humans invented and use culture as our very means of survival. Genetic adaptations take a long time and while they’re still happening in humans, culture and the transmission of culture is what enabled us to survive the ice age, not eat things that might kills us like poison berries and develop today’s digital technologies.
So why is this important to understand, think about and consider as we become ever more connected and develop technologies like Artificial Intelligence (AI) that can fundamentally impact our world?
We need to consider cultural transmission because we’re changing our human societies at an epic scale and at a speed we’ve never before encountered.
The internet and technologies it has enabled and fostered, such as social media, smartphones and wireless data and voice, are connecting almost every culture and society in the world. We know from studying history, that when different human societies meet for the first time, things can get a bit messy.
This is happening in todays digital spaces, or cyberspace. How?
Sometimes, conflict is immediate, especially when a society feels threatened by another society showing up on its doorstep. The good news is that this is more the exception than the rule. Recent anthropological and archeological evidence suggests we preferred to trade and exchange ideas more than thump each other on the head.
While different cultures have indeed been fighting one another for many thousands of years, humans also know that cooperation is critical to survival. Alexander the Great is an example of a conquerer (who really wasn’t great in the sense of being a nice guy), who when his armies conquered new territory, the culture of the losers in a war was kept in place. he did not impose Greek culture on Egyptians directly.
We see this playing out in the digital spaces today, such as social media and online gaming worlds like Roblox (mini-metaverses if you will.) Autocratic nations are interfering directly with democratic nations and cultures and vice versa. Governments have used soft power (such as cultural transmission) for hundreds of years as a means of influencing other nations for better trade options, tourism and to get ideas into the heads of people in other cultures.
These are cultural transmissions at a macro sociocultural level. But the biggest changes happen at a micro sociocultural level. People from different parts of the world sharing their music, dances, fashions, food and philosophies on life via digital technologies such as social media. You can, in a matter of minutes on platforms like YouTube and TikTok, experience dozens of cultural elements from around the world while sitting in a coffee shop.
What we are doing as a species right now is an epic form of cultural transmission at a global and hyper-local scale. This is one of several reasons why there is so much tension in social media.
Some cultures are feeling threatened, especially ones where they feel outside cultures with different norms, behaviours, rules and traditions will overtake them. Prime example is far-right religious extremism in cultures, Christian right wing evangelicals in America (i.e. Christian Nationalism) and far-right Islamic extremism (i.e. Taliban.) Far left AntiFa and the concept of wokeism.
These are cultural transmissions of ideologies. We should not really be surprised that this is happening right now. And it will continue for sometimes.
It takes time for cultures to figure out how to work together, to establish new norms and social behaviours. We are going through the messy phase right now. Figuring out how to play nicely with one another. Eventually, we will. Along the way there will be conflicts and tensions and eventually, some form of stability. This is why we’ve seen so much division in social media, and will for some time yet.
The difference this time, in terms of global history, is that there’s so many cultures intertwining at the same time in the digital world and that online cultural collisions translate to actions in the real world. This is important for global brands and governments to be more aware of as they evolve policies, marketing strategies and the development of digital products and services. It has both socioeconomic and sociocultural impacts.