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Afterword: The Invisible Net - Andy Gibson

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The cultural historian Carlo Ginzburg once described culture as ‘a flexible and invisible cage’ which limits our sense of what is possible.[1] In its broadest sense, culture means everything we collectively hold to be true about the world. It includes not only our conscious acts of self-expression – art, literature, music, theatre – but the unconscious too, the jokes, sayings, popular wisdom, our deepest beliefs and darkest fears. It defines how we see ourselves, and how we experience reality. Culture is an invisible net that constrains and controls everything that we do.

Some elements of our culture are discussed, debated and reshaped in public discourse, but often our most deeply-held beliefs are hardly mentioned at all. For much of the time, we are completely unaware of this net of implicit beliefs that surrounds us, making us blind to the assumptions we are making, oblivious to the possibilities we miss.

Historically speaking, it is often the things we don’t talk about that come to define us. When Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of Castle Church of Wittenberg in 1517, he was questioning the way we worship God, and the ability of the Church to serve its flock. No one even considered the possibility that there was no God. Yet looking back on that period now, the most distinctive characteristic of Early Modern European culture seems to be their extraordinary collective religious faith, so deeply held that it took a century of cultural upheaval before Descartes and his peers began to seek certainty in logic and reason rather than divine inspiration. The one thing they never questioned was the thing that defined them. Perhaps centuries from now, historians will look back on our own attitude to science with similar curiosity?

On a more prosaic level, for decades in the UK we took our rubbish for granted. We piled it into bags to be collected from our homes, and our cultural discourse on the topic was reduced to a few comments about taking the bins out. The only time rubbish made it into our conscious thoughts was when the people who collected it went on strike. By 2012, though, we recycle, campaign to reduce waste, complain that we have made it too easy to throw things away, and seek to make people more conscious of waste and its implications. Rubbish is now a talking point – but it was our culture of waste for the intervening decades that did the damage.

The past two centuries have been a time of nation-building, war, industrial and technological progress, cultural diversity and scientific discovery; yet a historian seeking to define that era could quite reasonably name it ‘The Carbon Age’. As a wise woman once said, you don’t miss the water until the well runs dry.

Over a long enough timeframe, we come to be defined by the things we took for granted. If we want to influence society, we need to engage with these ‘invisible cages’ and make them visible, shifting our collective sense of what is possible, and valuable. Culture changes the world, because culture is our world, and defines how we act in it. From the environmental movement to big brand advertising, the battle for our minds rages on. Bill Bowerman’s popularisation of the term ‘jogging’ helped Nike sell millions of running shoes across America. The 5-a-day campaign helped a generation of mums and kids think more consciously about what they eat. Cultural change is big business.

Anthropologist Dan Sperber describes culture as the ‘epidemiology of representations’, an ongoing process by which we share our understanding of reality and evolve new concepts to explain the world around us.[2] We are continually sharing these ‘mental constructs’, blending them with our own knowledge and expectations, and creating new representations of the world around us. This is not a simple process of copying: each of us brings our own knowledge to the process, selecting the parts we think are most relevant and self-evident, matching each construct to our personal experiences of reality. So every time we communicate culture, it changes.

The web has made this process faster. The digital revolution is a revolution in communication, and communication drives culture. Our ‘mental constructs’ travel around the globe in seconds, with new views of reality exploding through networks and shaping popular discourse in unexpected ways. The Occupy movement may have peaked as an attempt to mobilise mass activism, but it has placed a new set of mental constructs about reality in the minds of people, all the way from Dallas to Dunedin. Protesters in Hong Kong are making the same representations as those in Wall Street, and the popular conception of money is being slowly eroded by this collective re-representation. If those involved could only find a simple action which we can all take collectively to affect the system, then things would get very interesting indeed.

What we are witnessing is an invisible revolution in culture. There are no clear focal points, no revolutionary leaders or symbols of the new power, and nor is there one common view of the world or shared cultural paradigm with which to agree or disagree. The real revolution is that the invisible net of our culture is becoming visible. Through continual cultural expression, we are revealing our mental constructs of the world and having them reshaped by the views of others. Through the instantaneous communication tools of the network, the possibility now exists for any of us to influence mass culture and contribute directly to how we collectively experience and explain the world.

There are limits to cultural change, of course. The messages which travel most quickly tend to be those which confirm our expectations and prejudices, and our assumptions may simply be reinforced if we increasingly seek out people who share our views and values. What is more, many of those who have radically different mental constructs to our own are not even connected to this new inter-cultural discourse. The old structures of power and privilege are still very much with us. What is new, though, is our level of consciousness about the assumptions and mechanisms that define us, and a growing self-awareness about how we live, together, and as individuals. The network is changing us.

If we are living through an invisible revolution, it is a revolution in our relationship to ourselves. A quickening of the process of cultural change, and an increasing awareness of how much our culture controls our lives. This suggests the possibility of new ways of making change in the world, requiring no army, no capital resources or broadcast networks. Once, changing the world meant taking power. Now the people who are leading this change are invisible, because the agents of this revolution are all of us, everywhere, all the time. And, most of the time, we don’t even know we are doing it.

  1. Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller, Trans. John & Anne Tedeschi (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980).
  2. Dan Sperber, Explaining Culture: A Naturalistic Approach (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996).