The terrain of culture is very vast, the maze of themes is so complex and the debates over the media and culture are intense that we have necessarily had to choose some perspectives and ideologies to the exclusion of others. There are diverse forms of media that saturate our everyday life and the cultural change of the current technological revolution is so turbulent that it is increasingly becoming difficult to map out the major transformations and to keep up with cultural discourses and themes that attempt to make sense of it all.
Culture is seen as ordinary and complex at the same time, including multiple realms of everyday life. It is described as cultural artefacts such as TV, newspapers, painting, journalism, cyberculture, popular culture, etc. “it is a space of interpretation, debate as well as subject matter and domain for inquiry”. Furthermore, culture in today’s connected society constitutes a set of discourses, stories, images, spectacles, and cultural forms and practises that generate meaning, identities and political ideologies.
Culture generally describes the shared behaviours and beliefs of a people; this includes material and nonmaterial elements. In other words, culture is a system of learned and shared meanings. People learn and share things throughout generations, and so we say they are a culture. Simply put, culture refers to the way of life of a group of people connected by language, mode of dressing, the kind of food they eat, etc. Be it traditional (old) or contemporary (modern), all cultures share common elements.
The uniqueness and richness of culture cannot be overemphasized. As technology and known patterns of the way of life keep evolving, so is the dynamic nature of our cultures and traditions. What was strange in the days of old have become acceptable patterns of living from food, dressing, marriage, beliefs, festivals, communication, and through all aspects of life. Therefore, having an understanding of our cultural environment is key if we want control over our lives, and the choices we make translate to understanding the place of the media in society and how it has revolutionized the interpretation of culture and the debates around it.
The beginning of culture was language. The first word was culture. Someone looked up from whatever else was going on and said that the first word was the building block of all human culture. You could pass it around, imitate or change it. Its meaning could be shared among people. Of course, meanings are not limited to written words but began with thought words spoken words, signed words, gestured words, and pictured words. All these kinds of words carry meaning. And it is in the meanings of things that culture resides, regardless of whether it is traditional or modern culture. So we can commence with the idea that our traditional ancestors like their modern descendants, learned and shared meanings.
Culture is governed by norms, including laws, customs, and folkways. The symbols and language of a society are key to developing and conveying culture.
What is contemporary culture? Contemporary culture refers to current, shared themes, beliefs, and values of society. It includes present practices, trends, as well as political and social beliefs.
The term ‘Traditional’ or old as the case may be, refers to those societies or elements of societies that are small-scale and are derived from indigenous and often ancient cultural practices while contemporary (modern) refers to those practices that relate to the industrial mode of production or the development of large-scale often colonial societies.
Traditional and modern cultures may be similar in some ways or alike because both are ways of thinking, and ways of relating to people and the universe. However, in some very significant ways, they are different from each other.
Contemporary (modern) culture developed in some areas of the planet as human societies grew larger. Mass organization in some form — first the development of large workforces and armies, and later the development of mechanized means of production — was an important force in changing traditional culture into modern culture. The shift from rural life to urban life is at the core of the development of modern culture.
Traditional culture, such as our human ancestors enjoyed, is held together by relationships among people — immediate family, extended family, clan, and tribe. Everyone lives nearby. Everyone knows how he or she fits into the mix because relationships, and the behaviours that go along with them, are clearly defined.
Both (old and contemporary) cultures developed to accommodate their surroundings. The two work for people because they are suited to local environmental conditions. For instance, a farming culture would not work as well in Antarctica.
Traditional and modern cultures function similarly because both are ways of thinking, and ways of relating to people and the universe. Maybe the word was “food” or “love.” It doesn’t matter what the word was, what language it began, or when or how. It just was. And the word constituted culture because the word carried meaning.
If there was only one concept to be considered in the discussion of culture, it will be meaning. How do we know whether the group of letters a-p-p-l-e represents that sweet-tart yellow or red fruit, or the brand name of the computer?
How do we know whether the group of letters l-e-a-d represents that blue-grey metallic chemical element or the verb that signifies “to show the way?” How do we know what a person’s intentions are when they wave their hand at us from across the road? It is because we have learned to share the meanings of words.
Traditional and modern cultures are alike in another way. Both developed to accommodate their surroundings. Both traditional and modern culture works for people because they are suited to local environmental conditions. A farming culture would not work as well in Antarctica. Eskimo culture would not survive as well in the Sahara. Culture of any kind works best (and longest) if it is well adapted to local conditions.
It should perhaps be noted that there is nothing genetic about the presence or absence of traditional culture; traditional culture is not the sole province of any one ethnic group. For example, in ancient Africa, the Bantu and Yoruba lived traditional culture. At some point back in history, all human beings — regardless of what continent they occupied and which ethnic group they constituted — all lived in a traditional tribal culture.
Modern culture developed in some areas of the planet as human societies grew larger. Mass organization in some form — first the development of large workforces and armies, and later the development of mechanized means of production — was an important force in changing traditional culture into modern culture. The shift from rural life to urban life is at the core of the development of modern culture.
While traditional and modern cultures may be similar in some ways, in some very significant ways they are different from each other. Traditional culture, such as our human ancestors enjoyed, is held together by relationships among people — immediate family, extended family, clan, and tribe. Everyone lives nearby. Everyone knows how he or she fits into the mix because relationships, and the behaviours that go along with them, are clearly defined. “Brother” is someone toward whom I must act like a brother. “Uncle” is someone from whom I expect a certain kind of behaviour. If I violate what is expected, everyone will know. Perhaps there will be severe consequences.
But this does not rob the humans who live in the traditional culture of their individuality. Some brothers act differently from other brothers. Some uncles take on different roles depending, for example, on whether they are mother’s brother or father’s brother, or whether they are particularly sociable and so on. But in general, well-defined family and clan relationships, and the kinship terms that signal them, make daily operations in traditional society take a workable course. If you have the proper relationship with someone, you can get just about anything accomplished. If, on the other hand, you don’t have the proper relationship, you find it difficult, if not impossible, to accomplish anything. In traditional culture, relationships and people seem to be what matters.
In the modern (contemporary) culture most people live in nuclear families: Mom and Dad and the kids. Many have only infrequent contact with family members outside the immediate household. Young people quickly learn that their importance depends on how many and what kind of things they can control. Eventually, they learn that power — personal, economic, social, political, religious, whatever — gets things done. Contemporary culture tends to spread out, to build empires, to capitalize on as many resources as possible and it seems to be held together by power and things, not by people and relationships.
In modern culture, people learn that business life is separate from personal life, for example, that religion and state can be kept apart. Here humans learn to compartmentalize their lives. During the week they can be shrewd business-people in a competitive marketplace where there are happy winners and tragic losers.
During the weekend, they can go to a worship place and ask forgiveness for their transgressions, and then go back on Monday and start all over again. People learn (in some form) two key phrases: “It’s nothing personal, but…” and “It is just business.”
However, in traditional (old) culture things are not that simple — business life and personal life are often the same things. Partners in business and other economic activities are generally the same people as one’s kin relations.
Similarly, the principles and values that guide divine and ceremonial life are the same principles and values that guide political life. Thus in the old culture, classifying or separating business and personal life, as religious and political life, would not work.
You cannot separate how you treat your business partners from how you treat your cousins if they are the same people. You cannot separate your divine values from your political values if they are the same values.
Another way in which the two differ is that traditional culture tends to stay relatively the same for long periods. It is a conservative system. Does this mean that new ideas are not incorporated from time to time, that old or traditional culture is static? Certainly not. The old culture of the forefathers (ancestors) changed in response to the same kinds of forces that produce biological change.
The invention of new things in traditional culture (for example, new technologies such as the bow and arrow) works in the same way as hereditary changes: something unusual happens, and things after that are different.
Penchants for especially useful things and ideas in traditional culture work in the same way as natural selection: something does a better job or is more desirable in some way, so it becomes more common thereafter. Ways of thinking and doing things in traditional cultures flow from one culture to another just like genes flow from one biological population to another: folks come into contact, and something gets exchanged.
Isolation of a small, unusual sample of people in a traditional culture causes whatever that thing is that makes them unusual to become more common in future generations (for example, if a small group of people sets off to start a new village, and they all just happen to like to wear their hair a certain way, then their young ones would tend to wear their hair that way too) — in just the same way that genetic drift operates. Traditional culture did change. But it was such an old-fashioned system that it tended to resist change whenever it could.
In contrast, modern culture thrives on change. It creates new goods and services and teaches us to want them. It adds new technologies, things, and ideas at an increasingly rapid rate, such that the amount of cultural change experienced in a society in the last ten or twenty years is far greater than in the last fifty years.
Change in modern culture is propelled by all the same forces that cause a change in traditional culture, only in contemporary culture do the changes happen more quickly. Contemporary culture is a more changeable system that tends to change often.
Another way in which traditional culture and modern culture differ is in their relationship to the environment. Traditional cultures lived in close contact with their local environment. This taught that nature must be respected, and cooperated with, in certain ritualized ways. One did not make huge changes in the environment, beyond clearing fields for agriculture and villages. Society saw itself as part of nature; its spiritual beliefs and values held humans as the kinsmen of plants and animals.
In contrast, contemporary culture creates its environment and exports that cultural environment to colonies in faraway places. It builds cities and massive structures. It teaches that nature is meant to be manipulated, to be the source of jobs and wealth for its human masters. It sees itself as being above nature. Its religions commonly cast humans as the pinnacle of nature: at best its paternalistic supervisors, at worst its righteous conquerors.
These differences in the way old and contemporary cultures perceive and interact with the environment have various consequences for humans in those cultures. Not the least of these is the difference in sustainability. A culture that lives in relative harmony with its environment has a greater likelihood of sustaining itself than a culture that destroys its environment. The culture of our human ancestors existed for thousands of years without doing any substantive damage to the environment.
In a very few centuries, contemporary culture has eliminated or endangered numerous plant and animal species, degraded many waterways, and negatively impacted the health of many citizens: “better” living through chemistry!
A closely related comparison between traditional and modern culture concerns ways of thinking. Contemporary culture is built upon knowledge. The more bits of knowledge one controls — a larger database, a larger computer memory — the more power one has. Contemporary culture produces new bits of knowledge so rapidly that sometimes our computers tell us “Memory is Full!” People in contemporary culture are more likely to feel that things are changing, that bits of knowledge are coming at them, so rapidly that they cannot absorb it all, and cannot make sense of it all. Contemporary culture is long in knowledge.
The traditional culture had a broad base of knowledge, as well. All plants and animals in the local environment were known by name and by their potential usefulness to humans. Weather, geology, astronomy, medicine, politics, history, language, and so on were all parts of a complex integrated body of knowledge. But in traditional culture life went on beyond knowledge, to the level of wisdom — seeing the patterns in the bits of knowledge — and to the level of understanding — realizing that there are more profound patterns made by the patterns of wisdom.
Take medicine as an example. The traditional man had pain in his stomach; he found a plant in his local environment that had a certain medicinal property. These were bits of knowledge. If he prepared the plant’s leaves a certain way and drank the tea that resulted, it would make the pain in his stomach go away. This is a scientific method, a process that involves seeing the pattern in the bits of knowledge: x (the plant) goes with y (the preparation) to produce z (the treatment). This realization of patterns is what is described as wisdom. Both contemporary and old cultures go this far, but here they often tend to diverge.
Eventually, this traditional ancestor realized that there were all kinds of plant treatments for all kinds of ills — that for every ailment there was a treatment — and that there was a balancing act that operated on a universal scale of which he was but a small part. There was a harmony that could become disturbed if he destroyed the forest in which the plants grew, or if he overestimated himself by taking for granted the wisdom he had gained about the plants — and this harmony had to be maintained on all levels (physical, social, environmental, spiritual, etc.). This realization that the patterns of wisdom were themselves connected in higher-order patterns was the beginning of what is regarded as understanding. The old (traditional) culture of our ancestors was long in understanding, whereas contemporary culture frequently seems to stop the thought process at the level of wisdom.
In modern culture, the elders tend to think of traditional culture as “primitive,” “backwards,” and somehow “childlike.” In traditional culture, on the other hand, the elders tend to think of modern culture as “hollow,” “ignorant,” and somehow “childlike.”
But contemporary culture tends to take over old culture because contemporary culture is powerful: it is mechanized, it moves mountains, it digs canals and drains swamps, it overwhelms, and it is seductive — it glitters, it tastes sweet, it goes fast. And it advertises.
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Mercy Tartsea-Anashase, PhD
Blessing Arsun Dapoet