Can authentic cultures survive the advance of technology?

World Flags

Welcome to the Age of Sharing, now kiss your heritage goodbye!

We've arrived at an age where we explore the world from our couch and instantly share whatever we discover. I can watch homemade videos from distant lands, listen to foreign music, and go to the store down the block to taste flavors from around the globe. What's not to love? Well, with all of the wonderful benefits that sharing and open communication bring, I can't help but wonder if this signals the tipping point that will lead to the demise of pure, "authentic" cultures.

A distinct culture emerges from a shared pattern of behavior and customs that persists and is reinforced across multiple generations within a group or population. Culture survives through repeated exposure and practice. Cultures need a certain amount of isolation to maintain their defining characteristics. It's almost like the surface tension that keeps a drop of water together.

Cross-cultural sharing pierces this barrier, introducing new behaviors, customs and practices that may be adopted by parts of the original group. The more this happens, the more the culture fragments and mutates within the group (while fragments of that culture are picked up in other, unrelated groups). Put another way, if 90% of the things I am exposed to are "native" to my group, its likely that my lifestyle will end up retaining that culture and relaying it to my children. If I’m constantly exposed to (and invited into) other cultures, my own blend will be more diverse and less “authentic”.

One of the few factors that still separates different cultures is language, but that is going to change too. At the iMedia Breakthrough Summit in March, I saw Ray Kurzweil present a prototype of dynamic speech translation technology, able to recognize speech in one language, translate it and synthesize it being spoken in another language. It's slow and clunky, and I'm sure that it only works for a few languages right now, but its almost guaranteed to make huge strides in less time than we think (for example, the military is evaluating systems for use in Afghanistan). As this technology matures and finds its way into our smartphones, video chats and TVs, some of the last remaining cultural walls will crumble.

On the upside, all this sharing and technology helps document individual cultural elements. Art forms, recipes, ceremonies and stories are all recorded in various media and stored for posterity. And there's no doubt in my mind that more sharing leads to better communication, understanding and tolerance. What we’ll lose though, is the opportunity to feel truly immersed in a single cultural context (outside of manufactured, Disney-like constructs).

The parts will remain, but the whole will be lost.

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