Human beings are the bearers of culture; therefore, it is important to study how humankind has evolved over time as a basis to understand culture change. Periods of culture change indicate the direction in which the strengths and values of said cultures survive and maintain their existence. How to study culture change may be difficult at best because theoretical ideas concerning culture have created a schism among proponents and opponents of cultural evolutionism.
The literature suggests that Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution was central to the understanding of how societies evolved over time. Darwin’s main point focused on species survivals, that is, the individuals who were best suited to their environment transmitted cultural survivals from generation to generation. However, a biological framework is not progressive in that it can suffice to explain cultural survivals in terms of social structures, hierarchy, social justice, intergenerational poverty, and the like. To this end, rather than to rely upon biology alone, it became important to theorize about how humans “think.” Therefore, it is equally important to examine the social world of humans and the coexistence of mental and material phenomena, perhaps in symbolic interactionism.
With respect to symbolic interactionism, symboling and socialization are inextricably linked. Human beings make sense of their reality through symbol manipulations, and thus they behave accordingly. Both concepts can be viewed as a system of rules and regulations. As noted by Talcott Parsons, human beings must achieve compatibility and integration among cultural, social, personal, and biological systems. Therefore, culture and culture change can be examined and theorized through human interactions as well as human responses to environmental influences.
Environmental influences or the “web of life,” as coined by Julian Steward, refers to other human communities, plants, animals, and climatic changes that impact and influence how human beings and nature participate in a dance of survival. Furthermore, the question is: Who or what wins the proverbial prize of the ultimate survivor?
For the purpose of this entry, I will use Leslie White’s concepts regarding culture. For White, culture
has four key foci. First, it is ideological, in that humans relate to one another based upon shared knowledge, beliefs, and values that are transmitted from one generation to another. Second, it is sociological, in that it governs the laws and those institutions whereby codes of ethics are formulated and advanced in terms of appropriate and inappropriate behaviors. The third element of culture deals with the subjective expressions in human society, in other words, the attitudes or sentiments of the realities that are constructed through the ability to symbol. Finally, the technological aspect of culture explains how human beings developed tools in order to adapt to the environment as well as to survive the forces of nature. In summation, the four elements of culture as explained by White provide a holistic explanation of how culture is produced and changes over time due to a need to survive. White contends that human beings produce culture and that one’s understanding of culture is through symboling or a sharing of values and meaning.
Culture change is inevitable. No matter how we as human beings resist or accept it, change of every kind is inevitable. Present-day society is experiencing an accelerated period of culture change. I will focus on technology as an agent of change. Technology has had an immense impact upon our society. The media (for example, television, radio, print media, and computers) tend to shape values and visions of the “self” in terms of what is acceptable and what is not acceptable (such as material wealth and/or physical attributes). Mental images are flashed before our eyes at a rate of speed too fast to compute, yet not fast enough that the mind does not absorb the intended subliminal messages of self-worth or lack thereof. Cell phones have largely replaced public phones. E-mail has replaced letters. The traditional means of communication, the U.S. Postal Service, has competition from the computer. Ironically, the religious community is adapting to the rapid changes in culture. Amazingly, nuns are selling products that are synonymous with beauty for the pure supplementation of personal finances. The Catholic Church now recognizes that the vow of poverty cannot withstand the medical and retirement needs of an aging population of clergy. In addition, cell phone users are not exclusive to people in the workplace, but include people from every strata of society despite social class, ethnicity, age, gender, occupation, or religion, all for the purpose of organizing the day-to-day activities.
Furthermore, religious communities reflect acceptance of changes that have occurred within our culture in order to keep up with the demands of a fast-paced and growing circle of people who are in need of quick fixes. Technology delivers messages of spiritual uplift through the use of the cell phone, the fax, and/or the computer at a rate faster than the speed of light. Technology is redefining the concept of “time.” Operational “time” serves to regulate individuals’ comings and goings. However, the cell phone user’s interpretation of “time” is manipulative in that time can be saved by making a call to provide an explanation of what is late or early or on time. In fact, for some, technology has served to become a controlling device, in that one is forced or seduced into paying bills online rather than by standing in lines to remit. Moreover, cyber-promiscuity and child pornography are becoming uncontrollable vices.
As previously stated, technology has changed and is changing the face of society. It is, however, difficult to determine when technology became such a dominant cultural system, because the story of humankind and one’s tools has a long history, dating as far back as before Christ (BC). Clearly, technology has served to preserve humankind in its struggles with nature and the environment. Nonetheless, the fundamental question is: To what extent has technology become a disservice to humankind? And how can there be a healthy balance?
An analysis of cultural change presents multiple interpretations and evolutionary stages and adaptations in and of society depending upon the focus. Technology, as a rule, has shaped and defined culture. In other words, how technology is used and how it serves humankind shape the attitudes surrounding it. White’s theory of technological determination is relevant here. Within this theme, technology influences the ways in which people perceive and interact within their environment. In essence, technology in and of itself cannot explain emotions or the social elements of culture. However, the impact of technology upon the social elements of culture can be explained through observable behaviors brought about by the production and possession of materials. Accordingly, a second theme of importance is economic determinism.
In general, a distinctive way of life is determined by social and economic status. For example, Marxism produces an explanation for the impact that material production has had on the social consciousness of the individual. Regardless of privilege and power, the forces of production conflict with and complement the needs of society. On one hand, technological materialism and the production of tools are specifically designed for the purpose of meeting human needs. On the other hand, material production impacts social relations positively or negatively, contingent upon the intent. Consequently, the more an individual or particular group experiences material wealth (capitalism), political power, and privilege, the less socially conscious one may become concerning others.
Modern conveniences, dependent upon the individual’s position on the economic ladder, shape definitions of labor both inside and outside the home environment. In terms of employment, new technology equals increased output and savings over outdated technology. On a personal level, economic status dictates to what extent technology defines one’s social image, and one’s acquisition of advanced technology (for example, expensive modes of transportation, Internet access via personal computers, and even using a remote control to change the channel versus getting up to do so). Marxism provides a deeper understanding of economic relations; equally important, Marxism, like technological determinism, focuses upon human relations. Power and privilege within the context of social class relations provide a deeper understanding of social consciousness (i.e., there is a social divide between the haves, have-nots, and those who have least of all). As Marvin Harris notes, “materialism is what happens to you when you abandon your ideals and sell out.” To put it differently, technological materialism serves to produce unequal relations among people rather than to strike a balance between humankind and nature for the sake of survival.
Modern conveniences have indeed changed survival modes. With a shift in physical labor came a preoccupation with self-image and thus understanding the authentic “self” and the soul’s life purpose. The latter served to offset the pressures of succumbing to the emotional pressures to fit into an ideal that may or may not be attainable. Specifically, White correlates ideals of beauty (for example, with respect to women) to technology. In some cultures, where the food supply is not technologically driven and the stock is scarce, voluptuous women are regarded as beautiful; conversely, where there is an abundance of food, those same women in another culture would be deemed unattractive. There is also a correlation between social class and voluptuousness. In the first example, voluptuousness is an indicator of wealth, whereas the latter is regarded as poor to working class.
Burniske and Monke assert that online activities challenge the very notion of “self” and complicate issues of identity among the youth population. The youth population, like a blank canvas, is deficient in life experience and therefore falls victim to others’ interpretations of them. Here, online activities breed isolation and the lack of critical thinking and critical analysis of the information presented via the Internet. Technological culture, in this sense a threat to collaboration, eliminates face-to-face discourse and guidance to facilitate authentic or possibilities of authentic self-definition. In other words, opportunities to seek truth, think out loud, or a space to mull over ideas in order to construct more satisfying answers to questions and more authentic definitions of “self” are nullified by technology.
The interrelationship between culture and technology has altered the spirit of collaboration. As Neil Postman informs us, the United States, for example, has evolved from a technocracy to become a “technopoly.” As a technopoly (i.e., totalitarian technocracy) every realm of life is regulated through technology. For instance, most inquiries concerning the day-today activities that affect financial stability or instability are directed to computerized simulacra of humans without emotions (“Press zero if you’d like to speak to a customer service representative”). Interestingly, Postman equates technocracy with industrialization, inclusive of humankind and an enduring sense of spirituality. In other words, pretechnological man was loosely controlled by social customs and religious traditions. As an illustration, pretechnological man was less mechanical and more in touch with a moral dependency upon God (or the possibility of things coming into being due to a higher power) if not dependency upon one another. Accordingly, technology is chipping away at the human element that guides the emotions, leaving less regard for the human spirit. Technology is paving the way for a culture that is an insult to self-respect, such that the word “thank you” is becoming an anomaly. Postman argues that technocracy (tradition) and technopoly as two opposing worlds coexist (technology being the dominant worldview), and thus are redefining the symbols of culture (religion, community, politics, history, truth, and privacy).
Culture change takes place to accommodate human beings in their immediate environment. There is at times evidence of resistance to change and individuals who do their best to preserve elements of the culture through law enforcement. However, accommodations for the changes that do occur within our culture shape our very survival. In the final analysis, technology is just one aspect of culture change, yet because people are highly dependent upon technology, its influence is felt in every aspect of daily living.
Burke and Ornstein refer to the talented people who changed our lives, presumably for the better, as the “axemakers.” Furthermore, they argue that in exchange for their innovations, the axemakers gained control of our minds and redefined our beliefs and values. The very use of their innovations is seductive and addictive due to its image-producing powers.
In addition, Burke and Ornstein suggest that technology has both improved the quality of life in some societies, while generating a negative effect within and outside these societies. For instance, in Jamaica, in order to support tourism, businesses are eroding those spaces where individuals could once grow crops for individual and commercial use. Thus, natural resources that were once readily available for the taking are no longer accessible to the less fortunate. Here, opportunities for economic growth, while available for “big” business, deny the very livelihood of others. With respect to culture change, technology is the gift that packs such a deep sense of dependency and control that people feel as though without it, they cannot function. However, Burke and Ornstein inform us that the changes that are taking place within our world need not be beyond our control. The key to surviving periods of culture change is to become acquainted with the processes involved within the change. It is very important to be mindful of our most valuable resource, our children, and the environment in which their lives and minds are shaped and developed. Through our children, we stand to take back our power and reshape our future our way.
- Burke, J., & Ornstein, R. (1997). The axemakers gift: Technology’s capture and control of our minds and culture. New York: Putnam Books.
- Burniske, R. W., & Monke, L. (2001). Breaking down the digital wall: Learning to teach in a post-modern world. Albany: State University of New York Press.
- Harris, M. (1993). Cultural materialism: The struggle for a science of culture. New York: Vintage Books.
- Postman, N. (1993). Technopoly: The surrender of culture to technology. New York: Vintage Books.
- White, L. A. (1959). The evolution of culture: The development of civilization to the fall of Rome. New York: McGraw-Hill.