You were shaped by the dominant culture in which you grew up. You probably didn’t even think about that, but your values and way of living came together based on what you saw and heard.
Your family is your first dominant culture. For some people, the culture of a church or other religious group comes next. The next culture to dominate your life comes from media and (for most people) schools. Because of the way schools operate today, the school culture and media culture are almost the same.
Without thinking about it, you learn to look and talk and think and act like the people of your culture, for good or bad.
The dominant culture in this country is very sick today. That’s my value judgment. You might have seem similarly disturbing things. I’ve come to understand that if we don’t intentionally develop a culture in which we want to live — in our families and in the groups we join — we will default to becoming like the depraved dominant culture. And so will our children.
The bad news is that technology and various forms of media are destroying what’s left of Western culture as I’ve known it. The good news is that you and I can choose a culture — can build a culture — that we want for ourselves and for our children.
In the early days of the Internet, we were certain it was going to bring people around the world closer together, that it was doing to help us understand each other and be a positive force for public discourse.
We were terribly wrong.
By now, the positive possibilities have been crowded out by fluff such as “Kate Middleton’s Greatest Style Moments” and “Women Are Posing Naked To Reclaim Their Bodies.” (I didn’t make those up. They’re both real headlines from this past week.) The ugly possibilities are crowding out the beautiful ones — all because the bad choices appeal to the worst aspects of human nature.
Academics Neil Postman and Marshall McLuhan were right. A communication medium shapes the message it delivers — and that ultimately changes the people of a culture.
Many people have the vague sense that something is wrong in the culture around them today, but few of them have a solid theory about what changed. Some might vaguely blame bad parents or lack of prayer in schools or recreational drugs or a thousand other random things.
I suggest that a more realistic answer is to take a serious look at ideas about how communication and technology change a culture — and how the technologies we’ve adopted have changed us. If your eyes glaze over and you think this must be boring, you’re mistaken. It’s deeply fascinating. What’s more, these ideas are shaping your life, whether you understand them or not.
I used to be endlessly optimistic about technology. I grew up in an era when we were expecting the future to be amazing because of the technology we expected to fix everything bad around us. But despite the fact that Canadian media theorist McLuhan was explaining as far back as the 1960s about how television was changing culture — and how any medium necessarily shaped the message it delivered — nobody outside academia seems to have been listening.
I never encountered these ideas until I read a 1985 book called “Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business.” When I read this short book — which is very accessible, not like an academic treatise — it changed me. I understood the implications and I recognized that I had allowed someone else’s culture to shape me in ways I didn’t realize. I immediately stopped watching television except for football and basketball games.
As the Internet became more important — and then as social media took a bigger role in my life — it didn’t occur to me for the longest that everything McLuhan and Postman said about broadcast media was even more true about the online world.
Postman traced the evolution of different types of media and showed how each type changed its world. He died before the Internet reached its current power, but I can see now that the online world which we know and love is the next evolution of what he said about broadcast media.
My response to understanding Postman’s ideas years ago was to stop watching television, but the Internet is so pervasive today that I can’t cut myself off from it entirely — can I? — so I haven’t formulated the right response yet. I’ve already greatly slashed my use of social media, but I’m not satisfied that I’ve reached the right balance.
The more I understand what our reliance on certain communication technology is doing to us, the more I wonder if wiser people are going to be saying, “No, thank you,” to more of what technology offers. How can we accept the things which are essential to our lives — and which offer amazing opportunities — without being part of the cess pool which modern popular culture is becoming?
It’s ironic to find myself wondering — at least halfway seriously — whether the Amish have the right idea.
For a long time, I just assumed the Amish had some belief that things were better “back in the old days,” so they just dogmatically rejected anything developed alter than the 19th century or so. But I’ve discovered that people in the leadership of Amish culture actually assign certain people to use newer technologies for awhile and then decide whether the tradeoffs brought by those technologies are worthwhile.
The tradeoffs they’re making are not necessarily the ones I want to make, but I was profoundly struck by the notion that an entire culture is making evaluations and deciding which technologies they want and which they think are going to hurt their families and individual lives.
Here’s the good news.
Individuals and groups can do the same thing that the Amish do. I don’t mean by that that we can ditch our cars and drive horse-drawn buggies instead. I mean that we can intentionally look at what technologies and media are doing to us and make conscious decisions about which ones we ought to reject.
And there’s better news, too. If you’ve paid attention to the growing number of people who are dissatisfied with modern life — even if they don’t understand what they don’t like — there are going to be lucrative opportunities for those who understand the issues and who offer solutions for people who want to make lifestyle decisions different from what mainstream popular culture is offering them.
Have you ever heard of Columbia, Md.? The city often appears on lists of Best Places to Live in the United States. Even if you’ve heard of it, you probably don’t know that it was established in 1967 — very recently, as cities go — and it was started from scratch to be a different sort of city.
Developer James W. Rouse created Columbia as a connected series of 10 villages which were designed to eliminate the problems that come with typical suburban sprawl. It’s designed to bring people together in very human ways. Rouse saw it as a way to eliminate class and racial divisions by planning how people could best live among each other. Currently, the population is about 100,000.
I read a book about Columbia years ago and it seriously influenced me. If Rouse could do something like this on such a large scale, would it be possible to try building communities based on the values of like-minded people — at least on a smaller scale?
And if such a thing is possible, wouldn’t it attract the affluent minority who find themselves wanting their children to escape the dominant culture? Wouldn’t it be possible to build a community — or multiple communities in different cities — for people with similar values to live among each other? The possibilities are endless, not only socially but for real estate development as well.
What would such communities be like? I’ve put a lot of thought into that over the last 20 years, but I can’t give you all the answers. One of my templates would be my favorite local development, a new town called Mt. Laurel, which started from scratch in 1998 in forest land south of Birmingham.
The town calls it “a traditional community that is master planned in concert with nature.” If you drive around the place, you see a traditional small town, with a downtown business area surrounded by nice homes and trees everywhere. It’s about as different from a normal subdivision as you can get.
My point isn’t that I want to copy that particular development — or Columbia or any other — but that there are ways that people might want to live differently if their ideas about how to live have changed. It might affect how their homes are arranged. It might affect how easy it is to walk to stores and shops. It might affect where their children can play.
Ideas have consequences. And if we can think through which ideas affect the quality of life for people — and find specific people to whom those ideas appeal — there are business opportunities for serving those folks in various ways. There are opportunities to build a small development — a dozen homes — to learn and experiment. And there are opportunities to grow from there as you learn what the people might want.
Imagine building such a community. Then imagine building a bigger one. Imagine attracting people whose values align with yours — who understand that this is a place with different sorts of rules and expectations. And if you serve them well, you can make a good living building for them — and you can find a place where you belong as well.
There have been bits and pieces of this idea in most everything I’ve thought about for the last couple of decades. It’s the ultimate creative project based on a philosophy of life consistent with what I believe and what I’ve experienced. I know there’s a market for this — both as a business and as a way of life.
Most people believe they have to passively accept whatever the norm of a given culture gives them. They never think about whether what they’ve been given is right or wrong for them. They never think about whether it’s healthy for themselves or for their children. They simply do what’s called “normal.”
But some of us want to do more than accept what we’re given. Some of us want to understand the flaws in the ideas which permeate society. Some of us want to find places to belong — such as church groups, which I talked about recently. And some of us want to think big enough to start building replacements for the cookie-cutter culture we’ve been given.
I have ideas about a lot of these things. Some of them might never be completed in my lifetime. But I hope I can lay the foundation for something bigger than me — something which might be a family legacy which future generations of my family can build on and make better.
I can’t convince everybody in the world to reject the parts of the culture which I believe are dysfunctional and which are depraved. But I can build bits and pieces of an alternative. I can build something which I can point to and say, “Have you considered this? Would you like to join us?”
And when social and economic collapse comes — as you know I expect — there will be some security in planning ahead of time how some of us can protect ourselves.
Ideas can change the world, but only if we’re able to put them into practice and make the abstract into physical reality.
I don’t know exactly what’s possible and what might end up beyond my grasp — what has to be left for someone else to do in the future — but this vision excites me.
And it all starts with understanding what culture we want — and firmly deciding which parts of popular culture we reject. This is a future worth living and worth building.