The Culture Crush
Society Is Everybody's Business
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The Weekly

LOSING OUR RELIGION

©The Estate of Garry Winogrand

As institutions have come to dominate our society, modern discourse centers not on the art of association, but on the power and profits that shape everything from our bedrooms to our boardrooms. There’s no doubt that government, churches, and corporations play powerful roles in the shaping of culture. However, these built institutions, the ones we have purposely constructed to wield such power, could never exist in the first place without the purely organic process of agreed upon social norms. In fact, these all powerful institutions only survive with the support of organic institutions; those that do not require anyone’s permission to take shape. And like all things organic, our innate human institutions not only grow and develop, they keep evolving.

©The Estate of Garry Winogrand

It's hard to describe where these shared codes of conduct actually come from. We pass these rules, these value sets, like empathy or patience or work ethic, down from generation to generation, to the point that they become the glue that holds society together. They are like navigation devices, our proverbial moral compasses, helping us find our way and allowing for the one thing society cannot exist without: cooperation. In his new piece, Adam De Gree explores this inexplicably unifying concept, while dispelling the false narrative that we are born divided, that our unspoken values depend on the aesthetics and the population of the place where we were born. Read The Golden Rule.

“We invent cultural codes that signal intended good faith cooperation. Money itself has no chemical characteristics, but the information and incentives it encodes allow people to pay for food without ever speaking to a farmer. When the light turns red we know what to do. When someone sneezes, we know what to say, and when we see a line of people outside of the theater, we know not to cut. Morality is not biological, but no community can survive without rules governing the conduct of its members, as Americans are brutally discovering over and over again today. We have only just begun to contemplate what happens to society once we break the Golden Rule.”

©The Estate of Garry Winogrand

Whether you are a country or a city mouse, we all suffer from loneliness, we all enjoy the sunset, and we all from time to time rely on the kindness of strangers. These sentiments were never taught, were never preached, were never given as instructions. We simply know them to be true. No founding fathers, no authors, no one to deify, no one to bow down to. “Institutions are the adaptation that enable humans to collaborate flexibly with strangers and friends alike. If all this seems magical, it is, in a very concrete sense: no single person created any of them. So while Thomas Edison singularly may have given us the incandescent lightbulb, only culture itself can shape language or morality." 

In the words of the Scottish philosopher David Hume, “the rules of morality are not the conclusions of our reason. No one sat down and designed the English language, and the golden rule isn't the result of abstract theorizing. These are emergent orders, existing by the grace of human interaction. No one is in control, and that's the point. It is precisely on these spontaneous traditions that the culture of your quirky little hometown or the fantastic absurdity of a city like Los Angeles rests. Yet their very spontaneity makes it difficult for people to understand and appreciate them. In an age of reason, we're all control freaks with a false sense of ourselves, and extreme prejudice towards everyone else.”

©The Estate of Garry Winogrand

That may be how you keep people under the spell of religious affiliation, but that’s not how you hold a society together. Though we are taught to identify with strict political parties, in a democracy, regarding the institutions of government as other, and not recognizing ourselves in the mirror, is our most dangerous threat. Not only because of the chaotic individuals reeking havoc on the very norms we are discussing, but because sitting back and laying blame on church and state absolves us of taking action ourselves. We are blaming society’s ills on the other, letting we the people off the hook. In the end, whether you are a ranch hand or a traffic cop, we all possess this shared value system and we are all responsible for participating in society, no matter what the media narrative tries to tell us. So while it feels like everyday we are confronted by the idea of the loss of these norms, that sinking feeling may really just be our organic institutions, our hearts and souls, fighting back.

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Thomas Edison and his staff-courtesy of the U.S. Department of the Interior

One of the most notable stories of innovation in the history of the United States is that of Thomas Alva Edison and his famous laboratory. His is the story of the lonely genius, the sole creator, the mad scientist, the archetype of American Exceptionalism. But the truth is, Edison didn’t invent the incandescent lightbulb, the telegraph, the phonograph, the typewriter, the motion picture camera, the storage battery and too many other things to list here, so much as perfect them and make them accessible to everyday people. But what’s interesting to look back at, something he doesn’t get recognized for, is how Edison was able to intuitively design not only the products but the systems of creation, a kind of invention factory.

“I have not failed 10,000 times—I’ve successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work.” This quote brings images of Edison spending countless days or weeks working alone holed up in a studio to mind. Yet, it wasn’t Edison alone who made all those 10,000 attempts, it was the creative collective, these teams of men, brought together in an enormous complex of shops and laboratories in West Orange, New Jersey. That's how the not so lonely genius and his collection of mathematicians, engineers, scientists, salesmen and overall dabblers generated more than 400 patents in just six years. In other words, he relied on more than just ingenuity, but also heavily on cooperation.

It was important for Edison to claim to be the only inventor in order to obtain patents and gain control of the market share, which is why his process isn’t as well-known as he is. Yet it disspells the myth that any individual tinkerers, like Nikola Tesla, were more responsible for successes than was cooperation itself. The genius of Thomas Edison may not have been solely in his master creations, but also in his ability to identify unfulfilled electric dreams.

debra scherer