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February 08, 2006

(Re-)Mixing Culture - Homogeneity, Recombination, and Infinite Possibilities

One of the fears of globalization, and the hegemonic spread of certain powerful cultures, is that everything will end up being the same. Visit Tokyo and you can eat at McDonald's or KFC. Visit Russia and they're all listening to Britney Spears (or some such).

While such forces certainly exist, they are not the only, nor, I suspect, even the predominant ones. My experience is leading me to think that what's much more likely than a prevailing homogeneity is recombination -- memetic splicing that leads to something different from the elements that contributed to it.

Food is an obvious example... Here in the Bay Area the idea of a "fusion" restaurant is becoming passe, because chefs are drawing from all manner of sources to develop culinary products. I had dinner at a neighborhood restaurant in Berkeley where the salad was vietnamese-inspired, the soup was thai-inspired, Stacy had a delightful Mexican-inspired dish, and we all enjoyed tapioca pudding for dessert. The restaurant didn't make a big thing out of the cultural progenitors -- the chefs simply decided to pick and choose and create a menu that made sense.

Another obvious example is music. Take The Punjabi Rapper. Actually, that's it. Does any more need to be said?

An example closer to my professional work life. Stacy, who is getting her Ph.D. in anthropology (archaeology, specifically) attended a design ethnography workshop at the American Anthropological Association conference. There, she learned about affinity diagrams (aka, playing with sticky notes), and realized that her practice could benefit from this method that had been developed in HCI as a way to make sense of user data. And, of course, HCI had long been drawing from anthropological practice to understand user populations.

This is a trend affecting society at every level. And it's not simply a matter of taking two distinct things and having them combine to make a third. It's a matter of taking a part of two distinct things can now be recombined in any number of ways, because each of those original things can be broken down, and have its elements combined with elements of the other, leading to an explosion of possibilities.

The best example of this process is molecular biology, and it wasn't until we understood genes, combination and recombination, mutation, and selection that we could really have a framework to appreciate what's happening in our cultural world.

So, I guess I'm saying -- don't get down in the face of global sameness; relish the opportunity for recombination to lead to infinite cultural possibilities.

Posted by peterme at February 8, 2006 10:02 PM

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Wow. The Punjab Rapper represents Oaktown and the Five One Oh...Fa' shizzle. Frickin' surreal!

Posted by: lantzilla at February 10, 2006 10:03 AM

Hi! I was just surfing along and I'm not sure how I landed on your blog - but it did catch my interest. I believe that this sameness phenomenon might be the only thing that eventually saves the world. Our differences are certainly causing enough grief. Maybe as we become a little more like each other, like the same things, have areas of common understanding - then, perhaps, the world will be a better place to live.. But that's just my opinion. Cheers!

Posted by: John at February 12, 2006 05:21 PM

This is a pretty bourgeois interpretation of the impact of globalization and reminds me of the political paralysis that most post-modern theoreticians are ensconced in. Of course there is hybridity, cross-pollination, cultural reinterpretation or splicing as different cultures intermingle. The byproducts of this cross-pollination are usually pretty interesting and enjoyable to consume (re: fusion cuisine, The Clash, The Specials, Bob Marley listening to Stax recording artists). But this all lives in the realm of 'superstructure'(crudely interepreted as culture & ideas) and fails to look at what old skool Marxists called 'base' (crudely interpreted as economics and resources). So when Starbucks replaces indigenous foilage in Thailand for coffee fields, we might get a new interesting drink, but what happens to the economic situation of local Thai's or dare I say the 'environment'.

OK, I'll get off my faux-Marxist milkcrate now.

Posted by: David at February 13, 2006 10:39 AM