Adaptation, our Digital World & Cultural Collisions

Image by Dr StClaire from Pixabay

Chances are, if you’re reading this post, you likely identify yourself as belonging to a particular culture; Indian, Nordic, Hispanic, Jewish, African, Western etc. And yes, you do. But culture is more dynamic than that, just as genders are. You may also view yourself as belonging to another culture like punk or heavy metal music or knitting or nerd culture. These are often termed as subcultures. Smaller cultural groups that exist within larger cultural groups. The subcultural groups that we belong to often change as we move through life. In the late 1980’s I liked belonging to the punk / new wave subculture. I changed my hair colour a lot, had spiked hair and hair that flopped over my eyes, driving my parents bonkers. I no longer have enough hair to qualify for that subculture. In our digital world cultures and subcultures are colliding unlike ever before in human history. It can be bad, but overall, it is good.

In a previous post, I wrote about shatter zones and how cultures used to have a lot of time and space between them, to figure out what elements of another culture they wanted to adopt and integrate into their own. In the digital world however, those shatter zones are gone. Now, cultures and subcultures collide easily and constantly. Even if you think you’re not because you throw up digital walls to create an echo chamber, or what’s also known as confirmation bias, you’re not entirely walled from other cultures in the digital world.

It is this almost instantaneous ability to discover and interact with various cultures and cultural elements that creates both negative and positive reactions.

At the most extreme end, subcultures and other cultural movements, such as Revitalization Movements, try to create online spaces where “outsiders” can’t get in unless they share the viewpoints of that subculture or cultural movement. But it’s never entirely walled and most of those participating don’t really want to be entirely walled off. For if you’re only ever within a highly walled echo chamber, it’s very hard to critique another culture unless you see/hear what they are saying. Other subcultures seek out a variety of subcultures, to pick and choose what to adopt, from food to music and literature, seeking growth and connectivity.

Because it is easy to discover and assess or learn about other cultures in the digital world, the time/space that used to be there isn’t. In the negative context, this is why we have political memes in social media. And political memes are one of the worst forms of communication in the digital world today. They are designed to attack not just a political view, but a cultural view. They are instantly divisive, a this or that proposition, designed to create instant fissures.

Cultural memes often do the same. Some are plainly racist, others are more subtle, but still divisive. Memes today are the weapons of cultural divides and culture wars. They simplify subtle and complex values and views. They are designed to create anger, hatred or cruel laughter.

But not all memes are divisive. Some are designed to bring us together, to find common ground with one another or with nature and our fellow animals, or attempt to teach a moral lesson or value. Some memes can bridge the divide between cultures and create learning experiences that show how at the end of the day, we’re all just humans.

Memes are a complex tool of cultural communication in the digital world. You can’t share a funny meme about cats unless you have a device that has a screen that is connected to our networked world.

Then there are emojis. And hashtags. Emoji’s add a replication of human emotion. We may share a meme image with a smiley face, frown or some other emoji to try and convey the sense of emotion we are feeling and want another to feel. Or at least hope they do. Hashtags are attention getting constructs as well as a curation tool. We include them in various social media platform posts to hopefully attract a wider audience to gain social acceptance of our content. Emojis too play a role in communicating culture with flags, cultural symbols, various skin tones and so on.

We often don’t even realize that we are sharing aspects of our own personal values when we’re communicating in our digital world. Sometimes we do, because it is intentional. Often, it is subconscious.

Right now, humanity is in a phase of trying to figure out how to deal with the loss of these shatter zones. It is a part of the reason there is so much division in societies and between cultures. Over time, we will begin to teach one another and new generations, how to be more open to accepting differences. But until we get there, at times it is going to seem very dark indeed. We will adapt as we always have, by sharing and building new forms of knowledge.

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Giles Crouch | Digital Anthropologist

Digital / Cultural Anthropologist | Featured in Wired, National Geographic & Forbes | Celt | Explorer | Intensely Curious