Will we still have culture in the future?
Or will we become one global culture?
If culture is the way we grew up, in a certain place, surrounded by a certain community, then what happens when someone moves from one place to another? When they export some of their culture wherever they go next, and import some of their new culture into themselves in the process?
The United States is a good example of what happens to culture in the long term. After all, this country was populated by hundreds of cultures immigrating over hundreds of years. We were originally Indigenous, English, Spanish, and French. We were African, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean. We were hundreds of things, at first, and maybe we lost some of those cultures as we came together, but we also became a new culture—something made from all the other ones.
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I asked Parag Khanna, the author of two of my most influential books, Move and The Future is Asian, whether there’s any future where that doesn’t continue—where we somehow preserve something of our ethnic cultures despite globalization. “I don't think that’s interesting, quite frankly,” he said, “because that’s presuming that there is some static notion of culture and that anything that deviates from it is dilution and even degeneration.”
Exactly! Culture evolves. Before we were French and German and Spanish we were Franks and Goths and Moors. You could say we lost those ancient cultures as they once existed, but really they evolved into what we are now. And I think we’ll continue to evolve from here. Maybe we’ll become something more continental at first—something vaguely American, European, African, and Asian—but as we continue to move and migrate eventually we’ll become a blend of all of the above. Something global.
Those who have migrated might mourn some of their past cultures if they are new enough to remember them. Some might miss the food their Korean mother cooked, the language their Indigenous grandfather spoke, the wedding rituals their Indian mother practiced—and they might try to hold onto some elements of those cultures if it feels like part of their identity. But eventually, those cultures get folded into one another. After three or four generations they aren’t so distinct.
Most of my family immigrated to the United States from England, Norway, and Scotland eight, nine, and 10 generations ago. I am so far removed from those cultures that I cannot remember them, nor can I miss them. I never spoke their languages, I never ate their food, I never practiced their rituals. My ancestors who knew these things died long ago. Their children grew up with something different. So did theirs. I grew up with the culture that happened from the merging of all those other ones. I grew up American.
Eventually, we don’t mourn our past cultures at all—eventually they’re just part of the greater one.
“That's why we have the phrase ‘Third Culture kids,’” Khanna says. “Where I live in Singapore we have created a new kind of culture. My kids go to an international school, United World College, where the lingua franca is American-accented English but very few people here are actually American. And yet they feel deeply cultured—it's a service culture, it's a global culture, it’s a civic culture. Not one of these people fits the standard paradigm of hailing from one exclusive understanding of culture and yet they could consider themselves part of an evolved or perhaps progressive culture.”
The United States is a mingling of cultures, just as Singapore is, just as many countries are turning out to be and many more will become. Wars and displacement have caused 27.1 million to leave their homeland. Lack of economic opportunity has emptied whole countries into other ones—68 countries now offer a digital nomad visa in an attempt to recruit remote workers to live and spend money in their country. 1 in every 30 people moves to another country and that’s been on the rise since Columbus. And as birth rates decline, borders are opening—Canada is aggressively promoting immigration and European citizens can already move between countries. Germany has even opened their borders outside the continent.
“Germany is one of the last countries in the world that, 75 years ago, you would have said is going to become a melting pot and accept it. And that's what Germany is today,” Khanna says. “And just because you have X percentage of the population voting for a far-right party in Germany, let's not elevate that over the fact that Parliament, which actually governs the country, made a decision that you can get citizenship within three or five years of arrival in the country irrespective of your country of origin. That's the fact.”
As we move together, we soften the edges of our cultures and adapt them to fit with one another’s. As Tyler Cowen points out in his book Creative Destruction: How Globalization is Changing the World’s Cultures, “When one society trades a new artwork to another society, diversity within society goes up (consumers have greater choice), but diversity across the two societies goes down (the two societies become more alike)…Cross-cultural exchange tends to favor diversity within society, but to disfavor diversity across societies.”
The result is that we become more like one another. We become something shared.
We even share a language.
“The only true global language, and really the only one I think we'll ever have, is English. That's obviously a convenience for you and me as individuals, but it also reduces a lot of global friction,” Khanna told me. “I went to high school in Germany in the 90s and, as the European Union was coming together after the Maastricht Treaty, a lot of people were asking, ‘which is going to be the dominant language of European diplomatic or internal discourse: is it going to be French or German?’ Ten years later the answer was English. Because when a Portuguese and an Estonian and an Italian and a Dane come together, of course the only common denominator is English—not German or French.”
English is spoken around the world—it is the language of business and government. By treaty, it is the official language of aeronautical and maritime communications and is the only language used in computer programming. It’s the language of business and government. It is a huge win for humanity that our world leaders can sit around a table and talk to one another in fluent English rather than try to navigate the nuances of a nuclear deal with translators.
And it is a huge win for us! This newsletter is read by people in 140 countries—8% of my subscribers live in India! I followwho lives in Austria, who lives in Israel, from the Balkens and Germany, and and in Japan. How incredible is it that we can share ideas without language isolating us within our countries or government intermediaries limiting what we hear? All because we share a global language!
“There’s a macro trend of global connectivity forging a global consciousness, which leads to something you might call a global culture,” Khanna says. “If you imagine urbanization occurring more and more—people moving to cities and those cities becoming more racially and nationally diverse—in the next 50 to 100 years, yes, you can imagine that through the process of handing down culture from generation to generation, a default dominance of a certain kind of global cultural norm becomes more pronounced than other definitions of culture.”
That global culture sometimes looks like a “melting pot.” My husband and I frequently travel around the world where we find the more diverse cities the more interesting ones. As I write this we are staying in Vancouver, Canada which is known as the “city of neighborhoods” for its ethnic diversity. We have eaten Korean, Japanese, and Indian food; we have heard dozens of languages spoken as we wandered stalls of Chinese booksellers, native Squamish arts, and Indian music shops. We’ve both said several times that this is one of our favorite places we’ve ever been.
“Financial, economic, and commercial innovation centers of the world—whether it's New York, LA, London, Dubai, Singapore, or Hong Kong—what do they have in common?” Khanna asks. “They have a growing foreign-born population. They are evermore cosmopolitan international hubs and melting pots. And that's part of what drives their dynamism and their status in the world.”
As we come together, we create new cultures that have nothing to do with where we are from. We congregate around religious groups, create vibrant LGBTQ communities, and hang out with fellow expats. We identify with our political affiliations or our generations. We spend time with our military families or pump iron with other bodybuilders. We are K-pop stans and adventure athletes and take part in fandoms that meet at ComicCon every year. We form artist communities or play D&D together or follow Taylor Swift on tour. And all of those things say much more about us than where we are from.
“People move in certain circuits based upon whether they’re doctors or athletes or management consultants,” Khanna tells me. “Professional circuits can define a person's day-to-day culture better than where they came from. It's much more revealing about a person's life than what passport they carry. That doesn't reflect my full identity as a person.”
When I recently asked what cultures you are part of (outside of where you are from) you told me you are Christians, Trekkies, aviation and aeronautical advocates. You are backpackers and craft beer aficionados and horseback riders. Some of you are athletes and fishermen and gardeners. Some of you participate in homeschooling communities or share journeys with those who are in recovery or deconstructing their faiths. You call yourselves “punks” and “goths” and “theater kids.” And maybe that’s a better regrouping of society than one that divides us up by location.
“Critics of globalization commonly associate diversity with the notion of cultural differentiation across geographic space,” Cowen says. “In reality, individuals can pursue diverse paths without having their destinies determined by their place of origin; indeed this is central to the notion of freedom.”
The anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss thought much the same: “Diversity is less a function of the isolation of groups than of the relationships which unite them.”
If you identify with your nationality, maybe the loss of it feels sad, like a loss of your identity. And maybe the fact that I am not sad about the loss of my culture is only because I don’t feel like it’s part of mine. I may be American, and I’m sure that describes something about me on the global stage, but introducing myself as an American feels like the least “me” thing I could lead with. I’m not even sure what parts of that culture stick to me.
It feels much more pertinent to me that I am currently tucked into a corner of Vancouver with a plant-based cafe, a book store, and a yoga studio where I will attend class once I’m done with this essay. There is something I share with everyone else here, regardless of our various nationalities.
As I was pondering this, the man next to me at the cafe plugged in his computer beneath my feet. I noticed he had a French accent so I asked where he was from and he said his mom is Algerian and his dad is French—he grew up in both places but neither culture could claim him. He now lives in Vancouver. When I asked if he would be sad if his cultures became part of a greater global culture, he said it already has. Algeria was colonized by the French, and before that it was part of the Roman Empire—it was Arab, Ottoman, Phoenician, Vandal, Byzantine, and Turkish. The culture was already global and he saw no reason why it wouldn’t continue to go in that direction in the future. “Culture isn’t disappearing,” he said. “It’s adapting.”
Some of us might be grappling with the loss of our culture now, and some of us might not be. But in either case that’s only looking at things from our small 5-foot view. When we zoom out to the 1,000-foot view, can we see it going any differently? Will any culture willingly exclude itself from globalization for the sake of ethnic continuity?
Even if we don’t move near one another, we are exposed to one another. As Cowen says, “A typical American yuppie drinks French wine, listens to Beethoven on a Japenese audio system, uses the internet to buy Persian textiles from a dealer in London, watches Hollywood movies funded by foreign capital and filmed by a European director, and vacations in Bali; an upper-middle-class Japanese may do the same. A teenager in Bangkok may see Hollywood movies starring Arnold Schwarzenegger (an Austrian), study Japanese, and listen to new pop music from Hong Kong and China.”
“Those who oppose globalization because they say it dilutes the national culture, are they correct? I would say they're not,” Khanna says. “Either you can be a society that preserves your national culture even in the face of globalization or you can accept that part of what culture is is to evolve with the times and to embrace whatever is happening in the world.”
In another 3,000, 5,000, 10,000 years will there still be Italians? Will there be Germans? Will there be Algerians or Americans? I’m not sure there will be. I think the much more likely scenario is that we’ll keep consolidating into one another, that we will become a more united world culture that’s been influenced by and made up of all of us, and that the cultures we belong to will be more about the kind of life we want to live than where we are from.
And that’s a culture I’m very much excited to build together.
But I’d love to know your thoughts. Join us in the literary salon for a discussion of culture! The ones you belong to, the ones you mourn, the ones that might one day be…..
Thanks for reading,
Postscript: This is a two-part essay series on culture inspired by(whose newsletter I highly recommend!). When I shared my idea that we should open the borders and let countries compete for citizens, he lamented the loss of culture that would occur, and wondered if it would amount to colonization. This part is about culture, next week we’ll get to colonization! (Thank you for the inspiration Nolan!)
Post-postscript:is one of my favorite writers in progress studies and he just announced a “progress blog building intensive”! That’s eight weeks of developing skills as a writer and thinker focused on building a better future. I have already applied, but want to share it with you as well.
Post-post-postscript:has generously offered to make the musical score for your utopian short films if you will be submitting one to our Elysian Film Festival. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org to enquire!
Here are a few of my notes from the margins of my research for this essay.