Sunday, August 30, 2009

196. Parenthetical Post: On the "Digital" Transmission of Culture

Most anthropologists see the perpetuation of a tradition from one generation to the next as something like the reproduction of a tape recording, which loses a certain amount of information each time it's dubbed. From one generation to the next, hardly anything appears to have been lost. But over the course of several dubbings, the original may no longer be recognizable. A favorite analogy is with the well known game of "Rumor," where someone whispers something to his nearest neighbor, who repeats the message to the next in line, until, after several repetitions of the same process, the original message has usually been distorted beyond recognition.

Both the dubbing of an analogue recording and the "Rumor" game are linear processes, based on the transmission of a signal from a sender to a receiver through an “analogue” process. But cultural transmission operates in a very different manner. For one thing it is not linear. Culture is not simply passed on from a sender to a receiver, because culture is not so much a message as a multivalent field, a complex web of social constructs determining the nature of reality itself. Each new generation is immersed in this field, this "reality," from birth, and its effects accumulate very rapidly to the point that most children are thoroughly conditioned by the time their first words are spoken -- or their first tune sung.

Nor can tradition be compared to the dubbing of an analogue recording, but more closely resembles the replication of digitally encoded information. Unlike analogue recordings (or archaeological artifacts), culturally transmitted information won't diminish or get distorted over time, because, as with digital recordings, what is preserved is not only the information itself, but the process by which the information is stored and retrieved. Transmission errors can certainly occur during digital encoding, but most can be caught and corrected through the use of a process called a checksum, which I won't bother to describe here as you can easily enough look it up on the Internet. The cultural equivalent of the checksum is the process by which the entire community is continually available to assist and correct the novice whenever a "transmission error" occurs. What we have, therefore, is not a simple communication from generation to generation but an integrated and continually reinforced network, not a chain held together link by link, but a chain-mail web of tightly interwoven connections.

In light of the above, it's not that difficult to understand how a particular tradition can be "handed down" from "generation to generation" over thousands, or tens of thousands, of years. Because, for one thing, it is not really "handed down," but established as part of a cultural field that permeates the awareness of everyone in it. And secondly, the generational aspect is almost irrrelevant, since there is never a point in time separating one generation from another, but, again, a temporal field within which individuals of all ages are engulfed. Consequently, there is never a moment of transmission when something is "handed down" but a continual process of cultural imprinting, enforcement and re-enforcement.

And if such a process can suffice to maintain a certain tradition for a hundred, or two hundred, or five hundred, or a thousand years, there is no reason to assume the same process can't continue for two thousand, five thousand, ten thousand or, indeed, one hundred thousand years, or more. Once such a process gets going there is no intrinsic reason for it to stop or even change. There is in fact no provision for significant change in such systems, which are designed in such a way as to make such changes all but impossible.

This is not to say that a certain amount of "cultural drift" is out of the question. We know very well that variants can be and are being produced on a regular basis. But such variants are almost always produced through localized linear transmissions that are always subsumed within the overall field. Thus the innumerable variants of particular folk songs have no effect on the overall form and style of all such songs, which remain essentially fixed.

Traditions change only when confronted by powerful forces capable of altering or destroying the cultural fields that maintain them. If such forces are never encountered, then both the fields and the traditions will persist.

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