The Things We Share Define Our Culture

I’ve been thinking a lot about the cultural things that we, as Americans, share (or don’t) with one another.

This Christmas, I was apart from my family, and spent my time with folks who I have about a year of history with, sharing a loosely traditional type of meal, gathered together in a secular manner. There wasn’t really any talk of Santa Claus or Christ, other than the “I don’t really believe in that stuff,” or “I’m definitely not going to tell my kids there is a Santa Claus…if I end up having kids.”

I think it bothered me less that I was disconnected from my family (although I missed them terribly), and more more that I felt disconnected from any sort of deep cultural narrative that my friends and I all shared, and gathered to celebrate. I felt a collective *meh* of everyone for the holiday. Like we were all taking time away from the office for what was effectively a cultural relic whose importance and meaning was beginning to fade from our collective memory.

The Christmas holiday has been separated from the tradition that gave it birth, and as a result lost most of its cultural significance.

In other words, when you disconnect the concept “Christmas” from the Biblical narrative of the birth of Jesus, or from the cultural myth about a benevolent Saint Nicholas who gives gifts to children at Christmastime, the day on the calendar becomes an empty vessel where meaning used to be.

It’s now second nature for us to separate most traditions or cultural norms down to their individual parts, disconnecting them from the larger narrative until their once rich meaning ceases to exist altogether. As a culture, I’m not sure that America is acknowledging that deconstructing everything leaves us with parts can never add up to the sum of the whole.

And with a holiday like Christmas, everyone unconsciously acknowledges the nihilistic space that remains, and rushes to redefine the narrative around the day as simple “the time we spend with the people we’re close to.” That doesn’t pack nearly the same punch,

For tech workers in San Francisco, Christmas feels like a break from email and work, the two main things we have in common. Email and work are two of the major things that make up our culture. They are where we spend most of our time, and form the modern-day “tribes” of American cities.

I’ve been mulling this over for the past few months, but was spurred to action the other day when Gmail went down for almost 2 hours. My acquaintance Andrew Leonard, who I love because he is living the dream as a full-time writer, wrote an article about how Gmail going down was a rare moment of cultural unity for all of us.

Partisan divisions, culture war skirmishes, gender hostility … all gone. When Gmail went down, we became one nation, out of many inboxes. The reaction to the Gmail outage probably caused a sharper drop in productivity than the outage itself.

There’s something sweet about seeing such unity forged from catastrophe — however fleeting that unity might be, however quickly we returned to our own demarcation zones soon afterward.

Of course there’s a bit of satire, but Jesus doesn’t it ring true? Our most powerful moment of cultural unity, the thing that bridged all the chasms between ideologues, the experience we all shared and saw through the exact same lens was when a monolithic tech company’s server farm hiccuped for 2 hours.

Gmail kills our productivity for 2 hours, and there is gnashing of teeth. What are we to do without being connected to one another via email?

This isn’t an isolated example. It’s been like this for the last decade. In 2006, when I was in college, Facebook made sweeping changes and introduced “the Newsfeed.” American college students (we were still the only ones with Facebook access) rose up in protest, joining “Anti-Newsfeed” groups on Facebook (irony?) by the hundreds of thousands.

I remember refreshing the main Anti-Newsfeed group to watch its numbers jump by the thousands every few seconds. At the time, America was fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but we ignored that most of the time.

This was the great cause of my generation; the thing we would rise up and fight: Facebook changing the way they served us our friends’ status updates.

If the things a culture fights for and dies for are the things it values the most, what are we fighting for in America? Is there any sort of uniformity, or is something like Gmail going down the closest we get to the consensus of shared tradition these days?

To want for a renaissance of tradition isn’t a popular sentiment today, but I find myself secretly wishing for the social cohesion I felt when I lived in Mexico and Chile. Those were countries that had a rich traditions they celebrated, and perpetuated strong cultural identities that their people were proud of, and carried with them when they travel or emigrate. Americans pretend to be Canadians when we’re abroad.

I would walk across the entire country for a moment of American cultural unity that wasn’t tied to a social network, or my email provider.

Of course, that may be indeed what I have done. I followed manifest destiny to the end of the American continent, chasing my fortune to the land of gold rushes and tech bubbles. But in a land of innovation, where the new is always assumed to be better than what came before it, the only tradition we share is to eat our traditions at the table of progress.

What is our collective identity when the only things we have in common are the email applications and social networks we spend our time on? What happens when those inevitably pass away, out-innovated by the next startup?

There’s a great movie called “Killing them Softly” that has a sub-narrative running throughout the film about how America isn’t a country, it’s a business. The reasons Americans freely associate and form groups come down to getting paid and very little else.

The people I spent my holidays with were indeed my San Francisco family – people I have a lot of respect and love for. These are absolutely the folks that I spend most of my time with, but again, the relationships revolve centrally around technology products, and shared beliefs about how a business should be run. We all come from very diverse backgrounds with unique beliefs and practices, many of which if brought into the open would meet in conflict over core issues.

We joked to hide our nervous realization that our daily lives are now significantly defined by the connectivity delivered to us by a tiny handful of corporations.

What is the American cultural legacy we are leaving behind? What do we as Americans believe as a country? Is there still a cultural narrative that ties us together but doesn’t have to be justified by revenue or profit? As a man seeking to find his way and a fabric to weave into, where am I to turn?

Can I Google the answer? Will the servers be up?

Austin Gunter

I’m Austin. I live in San Francisco, practice Tai Chi, have rheumatoid arthritis, listen to a lot of loud music, and host a lot of dinner parties. Want more? Start here.

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