Cultural stagnancy is a warning bell for any company—for that matter—any person really. Thomas Jefferson had once said, “In matters of principle, stand like a rock; in matters of taste, swim with the current” . I am definitely not one to advocate for shucking off markers of a cultural past in order to make the status quo feel more comfortable. Far from it. Trust me. I know very well the dangers of being pushed in that direction—both as a small business owner and an writer.
Part of the peril that I walked into in my life was not necessarily failing to follow cultural trends but an overall failure to check my career path against industry-specific and market trends. Added to that, I wasn’t noticing how the folks around me were increasingly less racially and ethnically diverse. This was all happening, meanwhile, as the profession itself that I was seeking—being a college professor—was an economically shrinking prospect. Quite the cocktail.
A quick look at the stats: The salary of tenure-track professors has risen from about $70,000 in the year ranging from 1999-2000 to over $100,000 between the years of 2009-2010 . The amount of tenure-track positions have declined from being 78% of the available positions in 1969 to 33% of the available positions in 2009 (and only 18% of the remaining position were full-time) .
While I may have been a non-traditional professor in my use of technology, games, movies and art-making in the classroom, my cultural profession was considered Jurassic. The overall cultural trend was moving toward more STEM jobs, and there was an increasingly anti-intellectual fervor in the country. Anti-intellectual means being—anti professor.
"Cultural stagnancy is a warning bell for any company—for that matter—any person really."
The cultural innovations in my classroom were no match for the cultural stagnancy college instructors were perceived to represent. We could not out innovate out of being in a boa constrictor’s winding digestive tract.
Speaking of another s-curve shaped, winding structure, the Great Wall of China is a prime example of the complexity that befalls any noteworthy endeavor such as embarking on a career path or starting a project. By the time the project’s done, it toes the line of no longer being deemed relevant—by detractors and the larger public. Detractors aside—and their function is in their name—the relevancy of an undertaking still has to make it to some kind of market. It has to ultimately find its best fitted usage—audience.
In the section of Haiming Yan’s book World Heritage Craze in China titled “The Great Wall: From Ethnic Boundary to Cosmopolitan Memory,” Yan makes the case that what made the Wall great was also its downfall . He notes that while the Wall stood for thousands of years as a “defensive system against invasion from the outside,” particularly those thought of a barbarous, it later had been labeled as representing some kind of impediment to a narrative of cultural exchange and integration . Its singularity of use was thought to be its weakness.
The singularity of focus with which any aspiring professor has to commit herself comes head to head with the culture of first-ness in the post-digital age. Everything, it seems, has to not only be fast but great, timely and pristine, relevant with only a hint of rigor. Many scholars have risen to the challenge and many have done so to their peril.
We, as scholars, could do a better job in communicating how time intensive our work is if expected to meet the comparable levels of quality that we’re trained to and expected to provide.
The culture of first-ness can in some ways be a counterbalance for motivating scholarly writers like myself to move faster and speak more quickly to audiences. That is a way to help stave off cultural stagnancy in the digital age. Graduate students are notorious for finding ourselves studying our beloved and obscure topics. However, it is important to note that even in the scholarly realm work is judged by its timeliness and relevancy. We are just more understanding that good quality work is worth the wait—relatively so.
The race to be first in the blogosphere and in the news industry does two things: 1) It gets data to the people who need it as quickly as possible and 2) creates a culture of speed that sometimes can impede quality—quality of the work itself and the quality of life on the writer.
You can’t really argue with the relevancy aspect. We all Goggle things and have come to culturally expect Sri’s speedy and thorough replies. How many dates, job interviews or bets were won by the vastness of the Internet at our finger tips? Countless.
In “First! Cultural Circulation in the Age of Recursivity” by Devon Powers, he talks about the cultural theory of “firstness” as a “metaculture that plays a role in making culture circulation faster, more reliant on quantification, and more promotional” . Powers looks at “web-based comment threads and music blogs to showcase how the competition to be first is central to the cultural ecosystem, especially but not only online” .
This “recursivity,” as he defines it, creates a cultural mode where the condition has to be repeated over and over again—meaning that a Pulitzer doesn’t mean you’ve done something and you can somehow retire. It’s a culture where you have to keep making baskets. Your last lay-up even if done from a trampoline wearing roller skates blind-folded means little in the short-attention span of “what’s next?”
"What I hope for is a greater diversity of perspectives in what is deemed market relevant."
For academics, this “what’s next?” culture is tough but also, in a way, part of our culture, too. We are always tinkering with an idea, with a project, with an idea and several projects. There can be a now-ness to our process as well. Meaning we—because of our scholarly training—find ways to make relevant what we think is important. We’re trained to learn—incorporate new information.
As a post-30 millennial (half-luddite and half-Internet native), I am not making any argument for going back to the time before technology dominated our lives. I am a both-and kind of person. There are merits both to the pre-Internet and post-Internet cultures. What I am bothered by is the health impact that this culture of first-ness creates for the writer, the blogger, the scholar. Writing is extremely labor intensive. My neck and shoulders are witness.
Yes, I can write the length of a blog post in two hours. Yet, would it be any good or near the quality that either I or my readers have come to expect? No. I have trained myself to do a couple of blog posts a week. More than that, performing at the scholarly, rigorous level physically hurts. It’s a sacrifice. And we all make sacrifices for the things we love.
What I hope for is a greater diversity of perspectives in what is deemed market relevant.
If scholars are not at the table for some of these business and higher up decisions, how can we make the case for greater compassion regarding the physical and emotional costs of our profession? Diversity is, yes, very much about ethnicity and race. Importantly so. It is also about a diversity of mind.
At the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Ed, in 2012, I was part of the founding team of a school group called WSDM (We Support Diversity of Mind)—the acronym phonetically sounds like “Wisdom.” The premise behind it was and still is “to enhance the overall community for students of color at Penn GSE” through community engagement and academic and social events . As students of color in a predominately white institution (PWI), we had to create spaces to reaffirm our identity, connect with shared experiences and build bridges to alumni of color. This was not to the exclusion of participating in the larger majority culture. It better enabled it.
At WSDM, we argued that diversity is not just based on skin color or ethnic background. It has to do with diversity of perspectives and mindsets.
Women in Silicon Valley are making the same argument.
In Jessica Powell’s latest book The Big Disruption, she talks about the insular, zany monoculture of tech hubs. Farhad Manjoo reviews the book in his “State of the Art” column for the New York Times titled “Inside Silicon Valley’s Bubble: A Monotonous Monoculture.”
Powell, former head of public relations for Google, in her interview with Manjoo said about the Silicon Valley culture, “I don’t think that everyone has an equal voice…Even putting aside broader issues around gender diversity, ethnic diversity or class diversity, there’s also an issue around people’s educational backgrounds. If you have a hierarchy where engineers are at the very top and people who are interfacing with the outside world are a couple rungs below that, you really miss something when those people don’t have an equal voice at the table” .
In a knowledge economy—we need knowledge, and for that matter, we need knowledges. There are multiple intelligences that are to be found in a large swath of varied communities, whether they be rural, from Ivy League schools, multi-ethnic, multi-racial or even multi-gendered.
We as a society could do better to listen—without an air of threat—to people who look differently or even act differently than us. When we listen we can add more information and solutions to the problems we are trying to solve.
Techie culture has a need for speed. That, in part, has infused the culture with a rush to “first-ness.”
Manjoo writes that it “is hardly breaking news. Google and its rivals have published annual diversity reports for years, yet their overall statistics have barely budged” . “A lack of diversity plagues an industry that talks only to itself,” he notes . Both Powell and Majoo remark on the cultural stagnancy of Silicon Valley. In that, is concern that if we are either crowding out or not including marginal voices, we risk losing crucial insights in solving the increasingly complex and multi-faceted problems to come such as climate change.
Diversity is not a benefit. Ask mother nature. It is a need.