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The Internet has become routine, mourns a front-page commentary in the New York Times’ August 25 Week in Review. Despite the hopes of certain “cultural critics” that the Internet would “democratize media” with its low cost of entry, the dystopian vision of a cultural cybersphere has crumbled. The Internet remains useful as an electronic document retrieval system and electronic bulletin board.
Almost a year ago in this space, I argued that if Internet stocks were indeed fairly valued, we would have to conclude that the population of the world would have to spend the next century buying pornography, popular music and sundry items on line. Underlying the (then) generous valuations of technology stock was a futuristic vision of a world of mental insects drawn helplessly to the cyberspheric beacon, and plunging into the flames of a globalized youth culture.
Now that the dust has settled in the equity markets, a post-mortem examination of the illusion might prove amusing. The collapse of the Internet bubble has broader cultural and political significance: It informs us that the slimy tide of popular culture which spews out of American commercial media and washes over the world will not erode the bedrock of the old cultures that preceded it. That is a frightening prospect, for reasons I will attempt to explain.
To begin with, “youth culture” is an oxymoron. Youth does not create culture, it inherits it. Children of all cultures, to be sure, play with each other spontaneously, because their Spieltrieb (instinct to play) is inborn. Adolescents of all cultures fall in love with equal ease, because hormones dictate their behavior. The sort of music which accompanies mating rituals may find instant acceptance from Tallahassee to Timbuktu, but culture itself is a different matter.
Just what do we mean by culture? T. S. Eliot argued that it was no different from religion: It is the whole complex of associations and references which tell us who we are and where we came from. English literature (now dominated by writers from the Indian subcontinent) demands that we spell according to the long-since-abandoned gutturals of Anglo-Saxon (“light” rather than “lite”) because language bears its own history within itself. Educated discourse is a patchwork of quotations, a continuous reference to the past.
Why do we have a culture? Why have all the eminently sensible attempts to introduce phonetic orthography into English come to grief? The reason is that we need our past. All cultures worship at the shrine of their ancestors. They exist to ward off the presentiment of death.
Breaking the thread of continuity with the past means that our lives have no meaning past our own physical existence. Now, it is perfectly possible for entire peoples to live only for their own pleasure and feel nothing for their prospective obliteration. How else should we explain fertility rates in Europe and Japan at barely half of replacement? The world wars discredited their traditional cultures and their populations do not appear concerned about their own survival. That cannot, of course, be typical of the human condition, or there would be no human race to begin with.
Unlike animals, human beings require more than progeny: they require progeny who remember them. Consider two possibilities: the first is that you will be remembered after your death by generations of your children and children’s children; the other is that your children will be captured by an alien culture, raised speaking a different language, ignorant of their origin and oblivious to your death. Which one makes you feel better?
Culture is the stuff out of which we weave the illusion of immortality (whether immortality actually exists is a matter of personal religious belief and outside the scope of this discussion). Frequently, ethnic groups will die rather than abandon their “way of life.” Native Americans often chose to fight to the point of their own extinction rather than accept assimilation, because assimilation implied abandoning both their past and their future. Historic tragedy occurs on the grand scale when economic or strategic circumstances undercut the material conditions of life of a people, which nonetheless cannot accept assimilation into another culture. That is when entire peoples fight to the death.
In short, “youth culture” is a meaningless term because the young do not require culture, because they feel themselves to be immortal. The aging live with the presentiment of death and create cultures in the hope of cheating mortality.
Yet the credulous world put such faith in the triumph of global youth culture that it assigned to Internet stocks a trillion-dollar valuation. “World music” was to have been a vehicle for mutual understanding. The spread of popular culture was supposed to have homogenized us. All of us were supposed to have joined hands, singing, “Let’s get together and feel all right.”
Popular culture has its impact, to be sure, but as an instrument in the service of the bedrock cultures upon which it crashes. What could be more innocuous than the American toddlers’ program Sesame Street? There exists a clone of Sesame Street on Palestinian Authority television whose words translate, “When I grow up, I’m going to be a suicide bomber.” Palestinian television also features music videos with the same theme for the teenaged audience.
The collapse of Internet stock valuations was an early warning that the old cultures would not slip so easily into the blender. The subsequent warnings may be somewhat more emphatic.