Culture Vs. Choice

Culture is an amorphous thing, but a good working definition of it is "a bundle of focal points which psychologically unite a group of individuals across space and time." Language, customs, laws, art, beliefs, and so on all seem to serve this purpose. This definition also has the benefit of acknowledging the variable granularity of culture -- we can speak of "American culture", "Californian culture", "Californian surfer culture" and so on down to finer grains until we start to hit very small and exclusive groups.

The benefits of culture are large and obvious: it facilitates co-ordination for mutual co-operation, provides a sense of identity, and acts as a distillation of a cultural group's "collective wisdom." (I use "wisdom" here in a very loose and non-normative sense.) But culture also has its dark side: by definition culture represents a constraint on choice. The extent of these constraints varies immensely across cultural units, but the tradeoff is necessarily present -- the more unified and strongly "centered" a culture is, the less variety is available to those within it. Unless I move to another region with another culture, I simply cannot choose to immerse myself in an environment where only German is spoken, or where there are no speeding laws, or where everyone takes three-hour lunchbreaks, or where nobody cares about team sports. (Let alone all of these things together.)

Variation in human personality means there will always be those on the fringes of their own society, who feel little attachment to it and would prefer something else. In a world of high transaction costs and highly centered culture these alienated folk are S.O.L., and simply must hack out a living in the culture they're stuck with, trying not to feel too oppressed or nauseated by it all. But what happens when you lower transaction costs and costs of production, allowing people to associate at will and lowering the barriers to creation of new cultural goods? You witness the unfurling of the Long Tail, a world in which the plurality of cultural goods explodes and even the most idisyncratic of tastes can be satisfied. The Long Tail -- an inevitable outcome of greater freedom of trade and greater productivity -- is simply the decentralization of culture, a transition from coarser to finer grains.

Carried to its logical conclusion, it's a world of radical choice; a world that libertarians, myself included, find very appealing. And yet, I can't shake the feeling that something significant is being lost. As the grains get finer and large focal points are replaced with an infinity of small ones, culture for all practical purposes ceases to exist. I, personally, can't come up with an especially compelling argument to mourn the slow disintegration of culture, but I would be very interested to hear such an argument. I think it's one that needs to be made, at least.

Any takers? Beuller?

(Special thanks to sometime Catallarchy commentor Steven Schreiber, discussions with whom this post was inspired by.)

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