We are used to language and geography indicating cultural differences, and it’s easy to forget that cultural differences exist just fine even when linguistic and geographical boundaries are removed. There’s a shock of surprise when people whose entirely understandable words are only a click away turn out to have different assumptions, different beliefs, different attitudes and different cultural references.
One of the things that’s still cool about the web is that it gives us un-mediated access to other people. Quite literally so. It lets us find other people’s words without filtering them through TV or Film or News or any other medium. Simply clicking around WordPress here gives me access to all sorts of people with all sorts of attitudes and all sorts of beliefs. But because they write in English, it’s all to easy for me to assume that we have far more in common than in fact we do. It’s only when I read what they have say that I realise that one of us is barking. The apparent transparency of the internet shows us just how culturally fractured the English-speaking world actually is, but we have to be paying attention to notice it.
how many 18 year olds (or anyone, for that matter) would recognise or be able to explain the significance of (in order):
– the Enola Gay at 0:51
– the subversion of an iconic photo from Times Square at 1:11 (in our universe, that nurse was kissed by a sailor, and the photo made the cover of Time magazine. You can see the sailor in the background…)
– would they know who the guy shaking Dr. Manhattan’s hand at 2:28 is? Would they recognise his wife on the left?…
He’s right: those references are accessible and inaccessible at the same time. They are accessible because it is a globally released English-language film and they are inaccessible because they are culturally specific to one nation and one generation. I finally understand the point that George Bernard Shaw was making when he said: ‘England and America are two nations separated by a common language’.
This separation is invidious because we don’t expect it. We try harder when there are linguistic barriers because we actively expect differences in attitudes and beliefs and cultural references and we cut some slack accordingly or make an effort to bridge the gap. As Obelix says so often in the Asterix books:
These Germans / British / Spanish / Romans are crazy…
Take those linguistic barriers away and all sorts of odd things happen. We can miss cultural references without even knowing we are missing them as SoRB observed with the Watchmen trailer. But we assume a greater similarity than there is, which is one of the reasons that Sarah Palin seemed unreal to Britons, like some kind of bizzare caricature. She was almost impossible for us to understand: we had no concrete cultural references for her. If her foreignness had been signalled by a foreign language we might have recognised the cultural differences for what they were. We would have realised that she was real and not some engineered cross between Barbie and Lara Croft.
As with so many things, Douglas Adams put his finger deftly on it when he described that instantaneous and universal translator the Babel fish:
Meanwhile, the poor Babel fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation.
The Hitch Hikers’ Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams.
I’m still thinking this whole thing through, but the long and the short of it is that the world is a whole lot more multi-faceted and culturally fractured than we think. The internet appears to break down barriers and boundaries, but in fact as any comments thread on YouTube shows us those barriers and boundaries are alive and well.
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