10 Cultural Universals: Technology in Action

Last week, as part of our series on the 10 Cultural Universals, we talked about how technology informs and accelerates culture.

In this post, we’re going to expand on that.

But we’re not heading back to the Dark Ages to do so. We’re going to stick with modern technology.

More specifically, social media.

The Arab Spring

Mohammed Bouazizi.

Not many people know his name. But what happened to this young Tunisian merchant is what lit the flame of the Arab Spring – a tension that had been tightening for years, due to discontent and instability in places like Tunisia, Syria, Libya, and Egypt.

The police required Bouazizi to pay a bribe in order to sell his merchandise. Bouazizi took the matter to the governor, but he refused to listen.

So, Bouazizi lit himself on fire.

The Protest Spreads

Bouazizi’s plight was shared.

The people of Tunisia, and many states in the region, were facing government corruption, limited education, poverty, and high unemployment.

The youth were stirring, there was unrest. And they used the tools that only they – and few in government – understood: social media.

Via YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook, young people organized protests, spread their mission, and started to fight the hard fight.

Research on the use and impact of social media during the uprising has been done, as this was one of the first cases of its use in a grassroots movement.

The Dubai School of Government surveyed Tunisians and Egyptians about their use of social media during the uprisings. The answers of 86% of Tunisians and 85% of Egyptians led to the report’s conclusion:

“Growth of social media in the region and the shift in usage trends have played a critical role in mobilization, empowerment, shaping opinions, and influencing change.”

At the height of the Arab Spring, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was removed from power. A win for the movement, at the time.

But now, some areas of the region are even more unstable. And governments have cracked down on social media use.

While this Arab Spring may not have resulted in a successful overthrow of power and corruption, social media did give those who were silent so long a voice.

Social Media Movements

#BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, #MyStealthyFreedom.

Things are changing. Many are finding their voices.

And technology, in the form of social media, is largely generating this change.

People are sharing their experiences and learning from others’. People you know, strangers from all over the world.

While it’s unclear yet where progress will lead for some of these movements, it is clear that things will out. It’s clear that the things that matter, these serious cultural issues, will no longer hide in the dark.

They will no longer be ignored.

10 Cultural Universals: Technology

Technology.

It accelerates and informs our culture.

Sometimes, it evolves slowly.

Sometimes, it evolves at the speed of light.

Sometimes, it is light.

When we talk about technological development, we’re not talking only about technology as we know it today. And by that, I mean computers, the Internet, and everything associated with the word “tech”.

We’re talking about the evolution of aspects of daily life across time, which can manifest in many technological forms.

What forms?

Technological Development

Technology involves the evolution of the way we, as humans, live and interact with the world.

How we make ends meet.

How we get from here to there.

How we share our lives and record history.

Some examples of technological evolution:

  • Transportation: the wheel->carts->roads->road networks->bicycles->trains->automobiles->planes.
  • Communication: oral tradition->written word->telegrams->telephones->email->text->instant message->social media->videocalling.
  • Industry: the invention of steam power->the use of steel and iron->development in coal industry->advances in engineering->development in chemical industry.

These are just three areas of our technological evolution that have changed cultures all over the world.

How Do Technologies Change Culture?

As Charlie Gilkey put so eloquently in his article, “Technology and Culture Influence Each Other”:

“As much as technology is created from the fabric of our culture, technology also creates the fabric of our culture.”

Let’s take one of our examples from above to illustrate this.

Communication

Just imagine how different life was way back when the only means of communication was oral tradition.

Instead of instantly sharing one’s thoughts with all the world, Bob had to travel to George’s house in order to deliver a message.

Communication, therefore, took much longer, the audience was limited, it relied on memory, and it likely relied on more forethought too, because, due to these limitations, it was infinitely more important that Bob conveyed his message correctly the first time.

Then, there was written word. It could be conveyed and delivered to the recipient with more directness and accuracy.

Next, telegrams. Then, telephones.

When telephones were invented, you could call up your mom and ask her when you had to be home. And now, you can even see her face when you do so.

Communication has taken on new, more instant forms – from emails to texts to IMs to Tweets. These more instant means of communication can rapidly impact culture. In fact, they’ve created tsunami waves in the form of social media movements.

For instance, as described in “Fashion, Tradition & Cultural Clothing Movements,” a social media movement in Iran has and is changing the status quo when it comes to women wearing hijab in public.

Such movements are so impactful that they are altering the tides of history.

We’ll talk more about that next week.

10 Cultural Universals: Fashion, Tradition & Cultural Clothing Movements

Last week, we talked about the dignity of food culture with tips from Anthony Bourdain.

This week, we’ll discuss another topic within the same theme of cultural fundamentals: clothing.

Grouped together with food, shelter, and transport, clothing is one of the 10 Cultural Universals.

It’s easy to understand why.

Clothing viscerally represents culture in a way that’s often traditional, fashionable, and practical, all at once.

Clothing tradition also evolves with the times, as we’ll discuss in the section below, entitled “Cultural Clothing Movements.”

Tradition

In many parts of the world, traditional clothing has gone by the wayside, traded in for modern Western clothing.

Or, in some cases, traditional dress is worn only for special occasions, like births, weddings, funerals, or other big life events.

In some parts of the world, however, traditional clothing is still everyday wear.

For instance, it is not uncommon to see the Newar people of Nepal wearing traditional woven clothing in everyday life.

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Women’s dress is called Kurta Suruwal and includes a patterned blouse, covered by a draped scarf, and loose pants cinched around the ankles.

If married, women also wear Tika – a red powder – on the browline of their forehead.

Fashion

Many Nepali men, on the other hand, have transitioned to Western wear. It’s more common to see men wearing jeans and t-shirts or button-ups than it is to see them in traditional garb.

In this way, some part of Nepali culture has moved away from the traditional to what might be considered modern fashion.

Cultural Clothing Movements

Sometimes, culture evolves as social freedoms do. Often, it takes a movement to progress these changes.

For instance, in the case of forced hijab in Iran.

For nearly forty years, Iranian social codes have obliged women to wear the hijab in public. This has been Iranian law since the 1979 Iranian revolution.

But recently, with the help of social media, widespread protest of forced hijab has compelled some to shed or revolt against this cultural tradition.

This protest is not a complete rejection of the tradition or the hijab, itself. Rather, many believe it should be a woman’s right to choose whether she wears the hijab or not.

Masih Alinejad is one of the advocates driving this movement for social change. Alinejad started a Facebook page in 2014 called My Stealthy Freedom, in which she posts pics of Iranian women out in public, removing their hijabs.

While the regime has cracked down on the revolt, the campaign for freeing women of forced hijab is going strong and may just result in a cultural clothing revolution.

This is how clothing traditions evolve and how culture, inevitably, changes.