Cultural Operating Systems

Thoughts on Designing Cultures
5 September 2010

Other articles dealing with cross-cultures: Ethnicity and Racism - Stirring the Pot, 2005; "Senate Inquiry into the Status of Australian Expatriates", 2004;"Korean, American and Other Strange Habits - You Do It Your Way - two books reviewed", 2003; Individualism or the Group",2001; "When Is It Rude To Be Rude? - Politeness Across Cultures and Subcultures", 2001; "The Price of Freedom - an Escape from Vietnam", 1984


This article covers a lot of territory, nothing less than the "cultural operating systems" within which we live, how they have changed, and how they might be changed. There is a kind of arrogance in toying with the elements of 'big picture' issues like this. Nevertheless everyone has submerged opinions or prejudices or assumptions on how it all works. By dragging his own subconscious dregs into the light of day, this writer neither hopes nor expects to change the world. Rather, this is an open invitation for any reader to reflect and match their ideas against those of others.

1. Revolution as catastrophe: When it comes to kingly matters, the distance between the ruler and the ruled has rarely been doubted by either party, though in the cold light of day, both are normally loath to change places. The French revolution, and the Russian revolution to follow, not to mention communist China's version of revolution, the Irani theocratic revolution, America's 'shock and awe' version of democracy in Iraq, and any number of other pirouettes, have all been awful reminders that instant changes in the body politic are an open sesame to the most murderous brutes in the asylum. Revolutions of the swashbuckling variety make nice TV epics, but for mere humans they are usually a retreat to barbarism.

When your team loses the match a natural and instant reaction is to want the coach's head on a platter. Win and he is a hero to the crowds. Maybe that is why kings have been fond of wars, but uneasy about their heads when the lights are low. Armchair generals (coaches, kings...) are legion, but truly capable leaders on the ground are always few, and often accidental choices. Not everyone is born with a field marshal's baton in his knapsack.

Marie Antoinette, wife of France's ineffectual Louis XVI, was accused by the gutter press and thereafter ever remembered for haughtily dismissing the peasants: "let them eat cake", the lady is supposed to have said. After all, that's what she did, while she had a head. In the sober record of academic history, she seems to have been a more practical person than that. It didn't and doesn't matter. Prejudice, rumours, slogans, epithets and metaphors have always been tools used by the ambitious to blindside the gullible. The mythology becomes more important than the facts. Nowadays we call that spin. But what matters most is that the people who replaced Louis XVI, the pretend idealists, had characters more sordid than his own. And that cycle is a never ending story.

2. Heaven in your own image: Equally apocryphal to Marie Antoinette's false but telling epithet, somewhat earlier Louis XIV of France was supposed to have said "l'etat c'est moi" ("I am the state"). This too has been dumped on by the historians, again arguing for the irrelevance of historians to practical events. The phrase captures something universal. At least Louis had a reign of 72 years to work things out his way. Pity the scions of democracy who are lucky to get a parliamentary term or two.

Real dictators assume their embodiment of the nation as a kind of job description: " the 1934 Nuremberg Rally, Rudolf Hess ended his climactic speech with, "The Party is Hitler. But Hitler is Germany, just as Germany is Hitler. Hitler! Sieg Heil!" [Wikipedia]. Nevertheless, illusions of re-making a culture in one's own image have not only been the territory of despots. Jesus Christ had the same idea, along with Mahatma Gandhi, the world gallery of national leaders at any moment in time, countless company presidents, and also every tribe of ideological enthusiasts in history. Of course, it never works out that way. The problem is that people are not quite clones of the same design, and certainly not all clones of the ruthless and the lucky who get to the top of their local greasy poles. You might get the crowd to shout 'Sieg heil!' at a rally one day, but they'll just as happily cheer at a football match. They are as fickle as summer fashion. Mummies and daddies too would generally like to produce clones of themselves (being mortal), and only partly succeed, which explains very well why any collection of people remain so stubbornly different in the details. After all, their own mummies and daddies were also different, more or less.

3. Clonesville: Well, we may have differences, but we are also all the same in certain ways. In fact, big bunches of us seem to be "the same" in ways that are different from other big bunches of humans. Average folk have no trouble deciding that "your average American white/black/Hispanic person is like this or that". Or that "the people in China/Italy/Sweden/Timbuktu are different from us because of XYZ". Average folk are sort of right in a more or less average way, but when it gets down to the nitty-gritty of that guy standing on the street corner over there, well these average opinions are so often wrong that it is embarrassing. It is also dangerous sometimes. People fight wars over this stuff. So what is a culture anyway?

4. For the bean counters: For a statistician, a culture is a collection of bell-curve graphs. If you take any population, say all the kids in a school, measure their heights and graph it, you will find a few were very short for that group, a few were very tall, and a big lump of them spread out from the average height on the graph. That is, their height distribution would form a graph shaped like a bell. You might find the same about all the trees in a forest, or the recovery time for broken bones for hospital patients. In other words, this kind of distribution is normal in nature.

Now you might want to tell me that all Australians love meat pies (maybe you knew a couple of Australians once who ate them). If we actually did a survey though, we'd surely find that a few Australians couldn't tolerate meat pies, large numbers would eat a meat pie if it was put in front of them (with varying degrees of enthusiasm), and a few Australians would crave them as the peak of culinary delight. In other words, our statistician would wind up with another bell curve graph. If we picked a hundred attributes that are supposed to define "Australian culture" and actually tested them against a population of Australian people, we would also finish up with a collection of bell-curve graphs.

5. To generalize or not to generalize: Statics, numbers, have a dangerous anonymity. Whatever they originally represented can be easily put aside. If we take all the measurements for different "Australian attributes" and put them together we will, of course, obtain the granddaddy of all bell curve graphs, and perhaps kid ourselves that it defines what it is to be Australian. Maybe this is what average folk do unsystematically and intuitively when they arrive at their confident definition of what a Chinese / Australian / Korean / Saudi etc. "is". Maybe we have to do this kind of thing to function at all competently in out daily lives - reducing things to generalities is absolutely essential - but when it comes to understanding that particular guy standing over there across the street, well it's downright risky. Heck, I'm an Australian, have eaten about two meat pies in my life, can't throw a boomerang, and endlessly disagree with my countrymen. Am I mad and bad? Perhaps. Then again, those outsiders on the skirts of the bell curve also include our geniuses, prophets and innovators. In the next generation, they could be standing now where the herd will follow.

Generalization is more than a personal whim. Generalization amounting to prejudice is also the stuff of law and government. Village or even tribal law had the advantage of dealing with small groups of people who were usually fairly homogenous in cultural outlook and needs. The chance of legal misfit was therefore relatively small (if justice was the objective). Modern states are huge affairs dealing with vast numbers of people of every imaginable need, type and circumstance. One consequence is the stupid application of laws which might have seemed sensible provisions to well-intentioned but narrowly informed legislators. The law in the hands plodding bureaucrats and policemen is often a tale told by an idiot when applied rigidly across the nation. For example I am just about to be expelled permanently from China (2010)for the shocking crime of turning 65 years of age. Apparently by legal definition I am decrepit and disposable. Actually I run 5km a day, lift weights, have a PhD in language teaching productivity, 34 years of experience teaching English language & linguistics, as well as teacher training, and am extremely popular with students. None of this counts. If I persisted in my profession here I would be forced into a shadowy, illegal world of border hopping and bribes.

6. Health warning: All that preceded this sentence was perfectly rational. It is also not the way we usually talk about culture(s) in our daily lives. We are only selectively rational creatures. "Truth" lies in the foundations (premises) we choose for any description of "the real world". Therefore, all that follows is my own opinionated opinion, which you may wish to challenge with great indignation since there is every chance that it will not fit your own prejudices / intuitions / tiny exposure (as we all have) to the totality of attributes that might define any particular human culture. This is Thor May's bit of writing, so you are stuck with making as much sense as you can from his warped experience of the world.

7. Cultural designs (according to Thor May): Let us assume that you can talk about a "culture" as having a unified life of its own, just as we talk about a person, Jack Smith. Both may have a mass of internal contradictions, conflicts and frailties, but we nevertheless find it productive to identify each as a living system which is somehow distinct from all other living systems.

Taken as unified systems, all cultures have great strengths and also fatal weaknesses of design. The strengths (or consistencies) enable them to survive external and internal threats. However, in periods of stress, the design weaknesses can destroy existing communities or nations. For example, it wasn't an accident that the Nazis were able involve millions of Germans in self-destruction, or that old Mao Zedong was able to involve a whole generation of young Chinese in the terrible self-mutilation of the so-called Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).

8. The Australian sample: Australian culture, my own origin, is a curious mix, evolving all the time, and now containing almost 200 source nationalities. The place had a horrible beginning as a prison camp in 1788 (i.e. the European version of Australia). It evolved into one of the better showcases for democratic government. However, there are a few real Australian communal weaknesses. At least, it looks that way to me, having lived outside the place as an expatriate. In Australia there are often big ideas and small delivery. In other words, there is a fear of risk, both personal and institutional. Maybe that comes from having a small, mostly urban population in a huge land. Also, it is pretty hard anywhere to find heroes ready to risk their mortgage and a nice institutional job (a standard Australian urban pattern). Football heroes are admired in the safe arena of TV spectator sports, but risk takers in the daily workplace, or in politics, are not popular.

Exhibit A: A very sad example of timidity is the Australian nation's failure to capitalize on all kinds of useful inventions. Venture capital is thin on the ground, and it is almost conventional wisdom now that Australian inventors are fated to sell out their intellectual brilliance to foreign investors. Something similar goes for the academy and arts. The phrase, "never a prophet in his own country" could have been invented for Australia. Leading scientists, writers, actors etc. almost instinctively plan to emigrate.

Exhibit B: Politics. Australians have always shrunk from letting a visionary loose with the national estate. That has definite advantages in a sleepy, provincial sort of way. It also means that it takes forever to get things done, and leaves lots of room for scoundrels to slip in under the radar. For example, a trigger for current electoral deadlock (2010) was that the federal administration toyed with the idea of imposing a resources tax on multinational miners (shiploads of Australia leave Australia 24/7, destination the smelters of China, Japan etc.). The tax was a reasonable proposition. Presumably Australian citizens should stand to benefit from the export of large chunks of their territory. The miners, who are basically international buccaneers, funded a series of scare campaign adverts on TV, completely mendacious, and the turkey electors shook in their shoes.

Exhibit C: With timid development, Australian infrastructure is not only horrendously expensive, it now almost a generation behind that in South Korea (and even parts of China). 80% of the population cringe on the eastern coastal strip, defined by the Great Dividing Range right down the eastern seaboard , where their life ambition is to endlessly bid up real estate prices. A dynamic, tougher population would have punched tunnels through those mountains long ago, and begun to establish some credible claim to regions further west. Where is Australia's Chicago? (Yeah, I know, "where are Australia's Great Lakes?" too, but that is part of the challenge). Maybe Australian life has been too easy and too lucky for too long! I worry what will happen if Australians ever face real threats to their existence.

9. The East Asian sample: The term "East Asia" is a very large chunk of generalization indeed. Still, having hung out in that part of the world for over a decade, I'm human enough to have formed my own "post-judices", (as opposed to prejudices). My post-judices are a work in progress (like the cultures themselves), and always open to contradiction, but you need to make assumptions of some kind to function. So here goes, the big picture. East Asian cultural weaknesses are much older, more embedded and more complex than the Australian variety.

10. Your face or mine? : The biggest "crack in the glass" I see is what is called "chemyeon" in Korean, "mainzi" in Chinese, or "face" in English. I understand the historical reasons for the importance of chemyeon/mianzi. However, it is a cultural design for a different age. As an educator, I've been driven by direct observation to conclude that chemyeon/mianzi is a serious enemy of true learning, innovation and change. Of course, the sheer rate and scale of change in these societies is graphic proof that other forces can also overcome or even harness the 'face' motivator in various ways, but these are tactical rather than strategic maneuvers. I remain convinced that subduing the 'face' thing is a key to a more humanized civilization, partly because the ultimate engine behind face is selfishness. Yes, I know that is not how it is rationalized... I could write a book about this, but you guys would just call me a stupid foreigner ^_^ .... .

11. The public person: A close second on my list of East Asian downers (not unrelated to the face issue) would be the widespread lack of public conscience, public courtesy and public trust towards anyone not within the charmed circle of family and friends. This has had huge consequences in complex modern societies, from China's horrendous road toll (never give way, might is right) and often rapacious business practices, to the much relished sport of academic cheating by professors, teachers and students, to thoughtless littering and queue jumping. It is an evolving situation, and I have seen changes even across the brief years of my personal experience, but day to day things like this grate for those not inured from birth. Some of this stuff is touched on again below, but first it may be useful to toy a little with social-Darwinism, and take a look back in the evolutionary scale.

12. The clan group system: The human species, for most of its existence, has lived in small, mobile groups in hostile environments, constantly threatened with extinction. It seems likely (if archaeology, anthropology and history can give us valid clues) that originally these bands were typically headed by an aggressive male who would use any tool, including betrayal and murder, to get an advantage over the other males in the group. This especially gave him free sexual rights with many females. However, the whole group would come together to fight off threats from the outside, including warfare with other groups competing for food. If you study the behaviour of chimpanzees (our nearest relatives in the animal world) you will see a similar pattern, both of competitive male dominance, and the systematic abuse of females, with rape as a norm.

Surviving subsistence hunter-gatherer groups today have for the most part modified these patterns extensively, and some are very egalitarian indeed. In fact, technology and its trappings are a pretty poor guide to the social development of communities (which leads to much popular confusion and prejudice). If you look carefully at any number of "modern" communities and nations you will see that the underlying pattern too often retains strong elements of ape-like barbarism. "Civilized" may be a term often used to denote the suppression of animal behaviour patterns, but the institutions of 'civilized' countries just as often give an official blessing to man's inhumanity to man (and woman and child).

Organized religions and ideologies are frequently used to justify and enforce old animal patterns and those ancient priorities of small clan survival, no matter what honeyed words the lawyers use. For most of recorded history for example, religious leaders (almost invariably old men) have elevated sex as an "evil" worse that violence, and sanctioned the most appalling atrocities against promiscuous women. Perhaps it is no accident that current computer games and films are overwhelmingly dominated by violence and destruction, frequently involving sexual subjugation, while state based sanctions have historically been obsessed with punishing female sexual behaviour. Most leaders of countries, and many leaders of companies, are still that aggressive, murderous male tribal leader. Objectively, neither sex nor aggression define us as human. Far more critical are our abilities to nurture potential, to learn, to adapt and to build, yet any advertizing agency will tell you that these are hard sells to the popular mind.

13. Human survival: Many, many people think the patterns in 12) cannot be changed. If you argue for a different design, they will call you an "idealist", and unrealistic. I am not an idealist, and certainly not an ideologue. I am a realist. The way I see it, the old tribal leader pattern (which more or less worked for small close-knit bands) will destroy the human race in a world of huge populations and extraordinary individual human mobility across groups, cultures and countries.

14. Open and closed systems: I like to compare cultures to computer operating systems. The thinking behind them is much the same. You can have closed proprietary systems, like the Apple Corporation o/s. At their best, these closed systems can achieve elegant solutions and be very attractive. The other extreme is the Open Access o/s philosophy, like Linux. Linux has endless groups of enthusiasts. Many of the Linux dialects never achieve wide acceptance. Some achieve commercial success and some become semi-proprietary. However, while closed systems like Apple's can make money for a while, they are always at risk of going out of business (and I'll bet you that when Steve Jobs goes, Apple will quickly be in deep trouble). The open systems are messy, but they have tremendous strength. In some form, they will continue. The Open movement will never die. Google is an astounding example of partly open system generosity (together with some canny proprietary algorithms) succeeding where its more closed proprietary competitors have faded.

15. New world culture: Now let us take so-called "Western culture". Recently I debated with a Korean friend who was dubious about South Korea's faux western baubles, and expressed some envy of the Japanese capacity for adapting to external markets without losing the Japanese essence. As Laozi, the ancient Chinese philosopher put it so long ago, water is admirable because it can adapt to the shape of its container, but doesn't change its nature. I was less taken than my friend by this argument for cultural purity. It is true, I put it to him, that the clothes you wear, the fillings in your teeth, the buildings you live in, and even increasingly the food you eat are not 'native Korean'. The water in the Korean container is already laced with other dyes. Is this bad? Imports are often said to be "American", but that is only partly the case (and I think less and less true). You could think of "American culture" as one particular dialect of a new "world culture", just as Ubuntu is a kind of dialect of Linux. The more others join in with general world culture, the less influence the American form will have.

This world culture crosses the barrier of natural languages. You will find it amongst German speakers and Korean speakers, and Arabic speakers and Hindi speakers. You can now find this 'world culture' from Lagos in Africa, to Moscow, to Sydney, to Buenos Aires, to New Delhi to Bangkok, and of course to Seoul. All of these places have their own dialects of the world culture, but they also have a great deal in common. The local penetration of world culture is also always varied amongst populations (yet another bell curve). It is a more urban than rural phenomenon, but its presence is inescapable.

Those things regions across the world have in common make it possible for a man like me to be a 'citizen of the world', and more or less at home in any of these places. I love the variety that each of the 'cultural dialects' offers me, but I also see great hope for humanity in their shared base. Like the Open Systems philosophy of computer programming, I think this new world common culture has great strength and dynamism. Better, the very adaptations that enable it to cross old clan and cultural barriers make it less susceptible to the Ape-like patterns of male dominance brutality and sexual aggression (though not of course impervious to them). I think the new paradigm cannot be easily destroyed, although it may sometimes be forced into tactical retreats with the flux of world affairs.

To those who wish to keep their "cultural operating systems", like the Korean or Russian or Thai or French, "pure", closed, proprietary, without outside influence, I say you are in great danger. Maybe your closed cultural system was elegant and refined. Maybe it has a glorious past history. But it ultimately comes from an earlier human civilization of small, savage tribal groups. Now we humans are many, crowded on a small planet, and communicating with everyone instantly. We need a different design, and that has to be an Open System.


All opinions expressed in Thor's Unwise Ideas and The Passionate Skeptic are entirely those of the author, who has no aim to influence, proselytize or persuade others to a point of view. He is pleased if his writing generates reflection in readers, either for or against the sentiment of the argument. Personal names are changed where they might embarrass the owners.

" Cultural Operating Systems " copyrighted to Thor May; all rights reserved 2010

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