Our Rapidly Evolving Digital Culture

I've been thinking a lot about the Kurt Andersen piece in Vanity Fair and my follow-up blog post about it. While I stand by my argument as a corollary to Andersen's, I will make one major concession.

While culture as a whole has, for the most part, remained stagnant, digital culture has advanced more rapidly than even the Moore's-Law-defying technology used to convey it (Ray Kurzweil's Law of Accelerating Returns theorizes that growth isn't just fast, it's exponentially fast).

Memes rise and fall and rise. Layouts, interactivity and interfaces change all the time -- sometimes for the better, sometimes not. Trends in video, animation and digital art come and go.

Ultimately, while it might not be easy to distinguish a physical building or a flesh-and-blood person of 1992 from its 2012 counterpart, it's extraordinarily easy to distinguish a website, application or meme of 2012 from its -- seriously -- 2010 counterpart. Look up your favorite websites on and you'll observe massive aesthetic and content advancements over the course of just a couple of years. Consider a meme that everyone was using from last year and how it seems old-hat today -- sort of like the way platform disco shoes appeared in 1985. If someone posts the 'All Your Base' video on Facebook, the reaction is almost unanimous: that was so 2002. But even a meme from 2007 or 2008 appears dated.

We can easily distinguish the evolution of digital culture over a very short and rapidly moving timeline, while the distinctiveness of culture in the physical world is evolving at an alarmingly slow rate now (as Andersen wrote).

Since I began my career online in 1997 or so, I've been fascinated by the idea of "internet time" -- the concept that everything moves significantly faster online. But it's not just the energy of digital immediacy that's causing virtual culture to move so rapidly, it's the propulsion of a massive and unprecedented talent pool, with an equally massive audience that sculpts internet time and technology into culture.

So maybe I was thinking too narrowly. In dismissing technology, I forgot that technology isn't just microprocessors, bandwidth and CSS code -- it's an entirely new culture unique to the previously criticized era of 1992-2012.

  • IrishGrrrl

    There are three things that fascinate be about the Internet and Culture. First, how does that affect us psychologically and in turn, how does that affect behavior, particularly in regards to deviant behavior (my criminology background creeping in here).

    The most common example I like to use is the effect of anonymity on behavior. For example, there are trolls that go into chat rooms and do their best to offend everyone there and if possible, completely disrupt the chat process. The motive here doesn’t really matter (because the motivation to be an asshole has always been and will always be the same for human beings). However, what DOES matter is comparing this behavior with an similar situation in the real world. Take that same troll and put them in a room where people are talking and socializing (a physical chat room so to speak). Is that troll now going to yell, jump up and down, insult people, put up physical barriers to people can’t talk, etc? No, of course not! I used to use this as an example in my ethics classes (usually filled with computer programming students and business students with a concentration in computers, and some of those were hackers). I would say “So would you walk into the middle of a crowded room and let out a big fart? Would you start cussing and calling people names? Would set off a smoke bomb?” They would always laugh and then admit they wouldn’t do that. But they admit to having done the same thing online.

    This speaks to the argument that what restrains most people from deviant behavior is the likelihood that they will get caught, and in this case at a bare minimum identified. I can honestly say this is one of the reasons I don’t do some things that I believe are okay but are considered deviant and/or illegal in the U.S. But there are many more things I don’t do because I believe it to be unethical and society generally agrees with me. But that element of fear is important to controlling our behavior.

    Second, how does the Internet and the myriad ways that it aids and distracts us affect us biologically. We understand the brain and the entire body really so poorly and now here we are inundating it with waves from cell phones, expecting people to multi-task when we aren’t really made to do that, combining technologies in deadly ways (e.g., driving and texting) and how will all of this affect us from an evolutionary perspective.

    Third, it has long been known that the use of computers has created an exponential growth in information and how we are struggling to store, process and access all of that data to our advantage. For example I am seeing sites say that the Web itself is growing 10 fold every year ( So how do we tame that? Will it be all for naught if we don’t use it well? And how will this affect how we as a country estimate our GDP? Traditionally we’ve used manufacturing as a major factor to gauge the health of our economy and how we’re competing against other countries. But we’ve lost tons of manufacturing jobs over the decades. On the other hand, haven’t we gained tons of jobs that never existed before (like mine, as a web programmer) and don’t those jobs produce some tangible and a lot of intangible products (or at least hard to value products)? How do we then take that into account in our economy?

    Ok done babbling

  • OsborneInk

    Bob, I’d say that transhumanism is digital culture actually evolving.

  • drsquid

    I used to talk about internet memes, but then I took an arrow to the knee.

  • MrDHalen

    I think you have to consider time as well. I think we’re still living to close to the 90’s & 00’s to fully see their distinction. I remember back in the 90’s not viewing the 80’s with the clarity & distinction that I do now.

  • Guest

    Cultural evolution and technological evolution have been intimately intertwined in the 2 million years or so of human anthropological and sociological evolution. With the invention and increased use of the “smartphone” in the last few years the intertwining of cultural and technological evolution has come to it’s logical conclusion. There is no going back now. Where we go from here cannot be determined. Anyone who says they know what path the cultural future will take is full of shit.

    Personally, I don’t have a smartphone and don’t intend to get one. I have a cell phone I use for emergencies. I prefer to enjoy my cultural experience in person and if I can’t do that I prefer a big screen. Is it because I’m an aging boomer and a luddite? No. I intend to get a small laptop, netbook, or large tablet PC. I view smartphones as toys. Am I being ageist against the young people who sing the praises of smartphones? Maybe. I don’t care.
    Many boomers younger than me think smartphones are the greatest thing since sliced white bread. I think they are fools.

    The toxic waste and carbon being spewed out by China in their frenzy of economic growth will only choke off cultural evolution if we don’t cut our losses by finding safer manufacturing methodologies and move away from carbon based energy. The tea party republics with their stranglehold on our political system actually are aware of this. Why don’t they act? Simple. They don’t give a rat’s ass about 7 billion people and would rather push everyone off a cliff as they stand with their hands out waiting for scum like the Koch Roach brothers and their ilk to fill it with blood money.

  • Razor

    I don’t know if internet culture is something really worth celebrating though. It’s mean, petty and completely trivial.

    It’s nice that we have all this information at our fingertips, but it’s almost like standardized testing – in memorizing everything, we know nothing.

    • Guest

      Culture is culture whether one enjoys (I use the term enjoys loosely) it in person or on the tiny screen of a smartphone. Someone who trolls the Internet looking for trouble has no interest in culture. In fact, such people exist in a cultural vacuum.

      Protestors who use the Internet to organize and crowdsource are a whole other ball game. Culture doesn’t even enter the picture. The same is true of authoritarian governments that use the Internet to thwart protestors.

      • Bob Rutledge

        Culture is culture whether one enjoys… it or not.