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Status & Culture in the Digital Age

August 28, 2023
David Marx


This week our guest is Tokyo-based writer, David Marx, who recently wrote Status and Culture: How Our Desire for Social Rank Creates Taste, Identity, Art, Fashion, and Constant Change.

In this episode, we explore the ideas at the heart of David’s book as they relate to the modern technological paradigm we find ourselves in. In other words, how has the digital world shaped our cultural behavior and how we compare ourselves with others. This leads to discussing topics around social media status comparisons, how information abundance has undermined expertise as a status symbol, the ways in which cancel culture might reflect a shift in cultural currency, the impacts of rapidly changing trends, and much more.

Follow David at twitter.com/wdavidmarx or find his work at culture.ghost.io


Learn more about Singularity: ⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠su.org⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠

Host:⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠ Steven Parton⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠ - ⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠LinkedIn⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠ /⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠ Twitter⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠


The following transcription was created automatically. Please be aware that there may be spelling or grammatical errors.

David Marx [00:00:01] There's never been a time in which status has been in your face in the sense of it can be quantified with pinpoint accuracy and so you can ignore it. You can say, look, I'm a big deal even if I don't have huge follower counts on these social media platforms. But it's just one more reminder to give you status anxiety. 

Steven Parton [00:00:35] Hello, everyone. My name is Steven Parton, and you're listening to the feedback loop by Singularity. This week. Our guest is Tokyo based writer David Marks, who recently wrote Status and Culture How our Desire for Social Rank Creates taste, identity, art, fashion and Constant Change. In this episode, we explore the ideas that lay at the heart of David's book as they relate to the modern technological landscape that we find ourselves in today. In other words, how has the digital world shaped our culture, behavior and how we compare ourselves to others? This leads to discussing topics around social media comparisons based on the number of followers we have. How information abundance has undermined expertise as a status symbol. The ways in which cancel culture may reflect shifts in our cultural currency, the impacts of rapidly changing trends and hashtags, and much more. So without further ado, everyone, please welcome to the feedback loop. David Marx. I mean, Well, I think the absolute easiest and most obvious place to start is with your 2022 books, stars and culture. And really just to get us going, I'd love to hear what the motivation was for that book. Why was this a topic that you felt was worth discussing? 

David Marx [00:02:01] I certainly would not have thought I was going to write a book about status, and I didn't want to write a book about status. I really wanted to write a book about culture from the perspective that even as a kid, I noticed all of these fashion trends, and even when I was 13 or 14, when when grunge and alternative music came in, all these kids had clean wallets and I did not have a gene wallet. And I was somewhat excluded from the kids who had chain wallets. And I thought, well, the whole point of this music and culture is to be an individual, to be different, and yet everybody's kind of kind of the same. And so this question of how fashion trends start and what the logic is in them and over time kind of thinking that culture moves in certain ways over time in different groups, in different countries and categories, but it often progresses the same way. I thought there must be some sort of universal principles behind that. And what I had, you know, since college kind of been looking for is a single book that explained, Oh, this is the way cultural movements work, and here's the general, you know, patterns and here's the the physics rules and logic behind it. And in reading a bunch of culture, anthropology and sociology, you started to kind of see fragments of it. But I really wanted to write a book that brought them all together, that gave somebody almost a manual or a handbook to how culture works. And as I was putting this together and trying to explain it to people, everyone was like, Yeah, I don't know what's culture, What do you mean by culture? And culture is one of the worst words in the English language, in that it's it means norms. It also means pop culture. It also means high culture. So no one quite knows what you're talking talking about when you say culture. So, you know, as I was trying to put this together, I kept hitting this idea of status as being one of the drivers of cultural change. And then I said to myself, okay, well, I need a chapter about status. And so I'll just go read whatever the main book is about status. And as I looked into that, there wasn't really a book that explained the principles of status. I think I've located a couple now that are closer, but at the time there weren't really many. And so I started to put together kind of this work on how status works and in rethinking the whole book, it was kind of basic. I realized, Oh, this whole book about culture is also a book about status. And so if I just take this one thread of status and look at how it influences culture, I can pretty much tell the same story and it's a lot clearer. And so it ended up being a book about status because it had to be not because I wanted it to be. And I think status is generally a taboo topic. It's not one that people like to talk about or think about. I don't in terms of making a book that people want to carry around and say, I'm reading this. I don't think writing a book about status is a great idea. So I did it for the fact that it's true not because because it's cool or because it would sell books. So its status and culture are just interlinked. And I think you can't understand most of the principles of how culture works unless you understand status. And in one more important thing before we move on is what I mean by status, because I think that also is a word that has many different meanings and there's multiple books that have come out in the last couple of years about status, and we all define it somewhat differently. Mine is very much from the sociological tradition in a in a neutral way, meaning your position in a hierarchy and that hierarchy, your group's position in the hierarchy of all groups. And so it is about where you are in relation to others and then how that changes, changes your behavior and how groups as they're battling out for social recognition and esteem in the entire world and also asset access to resources, how that changes the behavior of those groups as well. And so there's a lot of writing about status as if it's an innate evolutionary psychology trait, which I am. I'm not the biggest fan of that theory. And there's a lot of talk there's an old kind of term for status, which is that it's your position outside of how much money you have. That's kind of the Max Faber old definition. So you could be a priest and have high status, but not necessarily in money. But what I would I mean is just what is your general position in society, whether that's in a group or in all of society. And obviously money has a huge role in that. So it intersects with class, it intersects with race, gender, all these other issues. But ultimately, it's it's about how people perceive their position and how that influences their behavior. 

Steven Parton [00:06:58] So you basically explain in the book that. As you explain there, really, that status is the linchpin in the grand mystery of culture. What is it about status that makes it so important? Why? Why is it driving the cultural changes? Why is it so important? Can you unpack a little bit why this is something that if you're going to talk about culture, you have to talk about status. 

David Marx [00:07:21] So first you have to think about what? Culture is. And culture is a set of conventions. You know, there's there's entire books just trying to define culture. And there's no single agreement on what culture is. But at the end of the day, what you're really describing with culture, whether it's in opposition to rationality, in economic thinking, whether it's in opposition to nature versus nurture, you know, however you define culture, what you're really talking about are the conventional parts of life. So the parts of life where there are arbitrary decisions on how to do things so we can drive on the left side of the road, we can drive on the right side of the road, but there is some sort of cultural decision to do one and not the other. And culture comes out of those conventions that form on top of these arbitrary choices. And that's why it changes over time, because if everybody is drinking espresso martinis one day, then you can move to mocktails, because drinking a beverage is the basic format, but it's arbitrary kind of what beverage we're drinking at the time. So arbitrariness lends itself to change, and convention is why we stick to certain things at the same time. And if you really want to read about how conventions work, there's a whole great stream of philosophy from David Lewis and all these other thinkers about how these conventions form in terms of group psychology and logic and all of that. But so when you look at conventions and how they form, those conventions are so much held in place by social approval or disapproval. So if you follow a convention, you will be given some basic tacit social approval. And it's more important. If you break it, you will get disapproval. And so, you know, your adherence to certain conventions put put you in certain groups and communicate to others that you're in those groups. The other thing that happens when you're in sight of a group is that the more elite members of that group have different conventions. And some of that can be they have more money and they can buy different things or have access to things that you don't have, or they just live in a world that you don't inhabit. So they know all these words and lifestyle behaviors that you don't know, but those things become in themselves desirable and you want to imitate those conventions. And so status breeds this value into other people's conventions if they're seen as being higher in the status hierarchy. And a lot of that desire is what propels culture forward in the sense of making people want things that aren't necessarily rational or logical. You know, you know, fashion is something that isn't taken very seriously in most social science, and it's seen kind of as a regrettable, superficial part of life. But it's there's a famous scholar who said that studying fashion to understand human culture is like studying fruit flies, to understand genetics, because it's such a pure expression of conventional behavior that you actually learn a lot of the mechanics of how it works. But ultimately, there is no fashion without status, because if people just could dress in a functional way, they wouldn't necessarily have to change their styles. Pant with would not go skinny and then white again or, you know, high water and then baggy, you know, whatever those those things are, those are all arbitrary. And so it's it is status and it's it's movements and imitation of elites that ultimately makes these things happen. What that was kind of the classical theory of the connection between status and culture. And what has made it more complicated these days is that you have these trends that start from what are what is understand is the bottom in the sense of lower income. Socio economic groups or marginalized groups can start trends that then take over the mainstream. And that really happens in the 20th century with the development of this focus on authenticity and the fact that people in the middle, especially in the information class, can get a certain cachet, could get a cultural capital from their understanding of those worlds. And so that that was the big, you know, status change in the 20th century that extends till now. And so it's still a kind of elite ism that propels culture forward. It's just that that elitism is not only in aristocratic or financial elite. It's much more complicated than that. 

Steven Parton [00:11:49] Yeah, as we move through time there, to your point, you know, entering the 21st century, what are the impacts of the communication medium that is the Internet and social media? You know, remarkably compared to the past, we now have a timer or not a timer, but a counter, an actual number that tells us almost what our status is, evolutionarily speaking. And, you know, any time prior to maybe the year 2008, you you kind of just went about your life and you didn't really you knew you were less than. The president. You knew you were less than Congress. You knew you were lower in your company, but like, you just kind of forgot about it when you went about your day. You might interact with people and not think much about it, but now you carry with you something that tells you exactly where you stand with an actual number all the time. How do you feel like this starts to impact that as a one relates to, you know, the elite, the people with a lot of followers or subscribers and just the general impact on how status and culture is affected by this technology. 

David Marx [00:12:53] Yeah, there's a couple of things going on, you know, So first I would say there is a general tethering system. So you knew, okay, I'm a doctor and doctors are generally well esteemed and well paid in our society and therefore it's a general high status. But now with an Instagram, you actually know, okay, I'm this mid-tier author, and this other mid-tier author is double the follower count. I do. I guess I'm not in the mid-tier. So I think it's probably for most people a negative psychological impact. But the other, you know, strange thing that I'm thinking about a lot is you do have all these people with huge follower counts who are big influencers at the same time. They have not necessarily taken over what it means to be famous. And so if you are famous from one of these social media platforms, you are not given the same esteem as being a movie star. And so as much as we talk about the death of Hollywood or the death of the pop star, the the few pop stars or movie stars who can make it, they're the ones who get the big contracts with the fashion companies or, you know, high end products. They're the ones who are seen as having really high status, even if they can't convert it into many followers on Instagram or something. If you're only famous from these platforms, it doesn't quite make you as big of a star as a star. And this is one of the tensions going on at the moment. But in general, you know, one of the critiques of status and culture was this is very much a 20th century book. It's looking at all this theory from the fifties and there isn't a single status ladder anymore. And therefore this analysis is doesn't make any sense. But it is is the opposite, which is there's never been a time in which status has been in your face in the sense of it can be quantified with pinpoint accuracy. And so you can ignore it. You can say, look, I'm a big deal even if I don't have huge follower counts on these social media platforms. But it's just one more reminder to give you status anxiety. Now, status anxiety can be quite productive and creative in society. I don't think that we see that effect quite yet because ultimately these follower accounts are also, you know, created more or less by hacking the system to become a big person on a social media platform. You learn the rules of how it works, and then you create content that follows that rule. And there's been some really great writing recently about the almost content less videos that do very well on these sites because they just figure it out. Oh, if if you can say that there's a something dramatic happens in the video, but then it never does. People just rewatch it over and over again because they think they missed it and then it will rise up the ranks. So I think, you know, people aren't dumb in the sense that we do not necessarily assign status based on some math. And so if you see, oh, this person's a million followers, you could say, oh, well, some of them seem like bots and, and or this person is doing a disreputable thing and that's why they have all these followers and we can discount them. And the same way that it used to be, if you were a card shark and you made more than a university professor, we would probably still give the university professor more esteem because money isn't the only way we look at status. So. So I think it is messing with our brains and we certainly haven't had a big global conversation about that. At the same time, it hasn't taken over in the sense that it's not necessarily the only way we think about status, but I would say probably for young people it is the way that they think about status and it's certainly a motivator for many to say the way I'm going to become an important person is to become an online personality. 

Steven Parton [00:16:47] Yeah, And to that point, how does that impact something like authenticity like you described earlier? Because that's a hard word to pin down, right? Because you can authentically be aligning yourself with the cultural trends. And that's not necessarily inauthentic. But if you're just jumping through the hoops that are trending as a hashtag or just doing the things that seem like they're going viral, I think there's an argument to be made that you're just replicating the world around you and not really pursuing an authentic path. So how do you kind of reconcile this? The way that culture just permeates everything about what we're doing because of things like the Internet and our attempt to kind of find our own authentic path within all of that. 

David Marx [00:17:36] And this is I mean, what's so difficult about this entire conversation is that every word has about three or four meanings. And so when you look at authenticity there, you could think of a book like Taylor's Sources of the Self, which is all about like finding the authentic self. I think that's different than the authenticity that's chased in the market and, you know, the marketplace because it can make everything. And especially today with with globalization, you can whatever is made, you know, in some small tribe in some place you could replicate in some big factory somewhere else. And so everyone generally knows this and knows that things that come to market may not be authentic. They may not be from the place that they're from in it. You know, you can go all the way back to the cookbook, to Coca-Cola calling itself The Real Thing. I mean, so authenticity has always been something sold in the market. And I think ultimately what it refers to is a general sense that things take their value from their relationship and associations with the cultural group that they're from. And so there's a group of people out there living this lifestyle that is aspirational to you. And there's a good or there's a behavior that they're doing. There's a kind of music we listen to or a kind of clothes they wear that you can look at and say, If I did that, I could feel closer to that group and that would make me more authentic as well. And so that rubs off on the whatever it is, and then it's sold and, you know, the initial times it goes to market or it shows up, me come out of that group and then if companies come in and replicate it, then it becomes inauthentic. So we're always trying to figure out what's the real thing, what's the fake thing? And the Internet really messes that up even further in the sense of it makes more fake things more available. So that recently there's this kind of talk about dupes, which is like the new word for, you know, some major marquee brand will make something and then some second tier brand will make a kind of close copy of it, and then some third tier brand will make a dupe of that and it goes all the way down. And now there's even, you know, these luxury bags that are made in the same factories, more or less in China as the main luxury bag. So the question is like, which one is real, which one is fake? And it takes, you know, expert levels of detection to see, oh, the stitching on this one little thing and the insight tag is wrong and therefore it's fake. So all of these questions of authenticity are are up in the air and it's kind of a mess. And I guess there's kind of two directions, which is some people have given up that they just kind of think, you know, trying to pursue authentic things is a waste of time. The other side of this, people who are even more desperate for authentic. Culture. But it's just getting very hard because those associations that made something authentic, they had to brew and stew in a group for a long time, you know? So if you have long hair equals hippies or the counterculture, it's because only people in the counterculture for a long time had long hair. And so to do that meant 100%, Oh, you're associating yourself with this other group. Well, now, if everybody has long hair or it's more conventional, then it doesn't necessarily mean that you've dropped out of society to have long hair. And so the the the other problem is just that we're in a more tolerant society. We're in a place where counterculture and subcultural trends get sucked into the marketplace so quickly to get diffused of any kind of danger that they had. And so, you know, it is it's just a hard time for something to keep its initial resonances because everything is conspiring against you kind of milking milking them as quickly as possible. 

Steven Parton [00:21:22] Yeah. Do you think there are incentives that push us one direction or the other? The like? Are the incentives such that. A person who is not maybe particularly self-determined, is more likely to be pushed towards materialism and standardization versus somebody being pushed towards like self-actualization. In other words, do you think culture right now and the desire to move up the status hierarchy promotes a certain level of standardization versus individuality? 

David Marx [00:21:57] So I get into this in the book because I do think there are different motivations depending on the status group you associate with. And you know, if you're a subculture or countercultural, those groups are founded based on the idea of more or less that the real true values in society are not money. And so if you're in those groups and you want to have high status in those groups, will then obviously don't pursue money at the same time. And not to get super cynical, but a lot of what we confuse for the pursuit of individual authenticity is more or less an aristocratic set of values. And this is an old point from from teachers. It's not not new, but more or less that the aristocrat always has to mark themselves off from everyone else. And so they're just more likely to try to do things that are unique and distinct. And that has kind of trickled down through consumer culture where it's like, now all of you should be individuals. And so there's always been a little bit of a bias towards people that are at the top. Maybe more old money than new money tend to get into slightly more strange pursuits. And then when you look at the creative class and if you go back to, you know, Paul Fossil's book on class, he calls this group, there wasn't the word creative class yet. He calls them X, the X group, and that's where Generation X actually comes from. But this X group, he calls them somewhat of a parody aristocracy, which is a bunch of people who are not rich but are kind of pursuing weird pursuits as if they're, you know, counts in the castle who are just bored and collecting butterflies. And so there were definitely groups for a long time in the 20th century in which just for lack of a better term, cultural capital was the way that they were going to move forward in the status ladder, that they were going to know more about something or have deep insight into something more. And that's what was going to impress others because money was for the really rich is off the table, like you don't have to worry about money anymore and you have to worry about social capital. You know, all these, you know, important people. So it's much more about what you know and what your what your pursuits are. Then there is a group there was under new money the upper middle class who can't compete on money. And so they're going to compete on knowledge and information, which is their job anyway. And so you had a pretty nice culture that's based off people pursuing information and knowledge as a way to get ahead. The Internet more or less destroys that because everything is knowable, ends in an instant. And even if it's not, we think that all information is now knowable. So if it's like, what is the best wine to pair with breeches? I don't know that, but I know that I could probably figure it out in about two or 3 minutes. And so if somebody knows that I could figure that out, they're not going to be impressed with that knowledge. So cultural capital has been completely devalued. And so we live in this world now where there may be people who, for personal self-determined reasons, still pursue knowledge and information, but you've lost people on the margins who are doing it in some ways, consciously or unconsciously, because that was the way to get ahead. And so they're going to be pushed more towards money, more traditional markers of status like career and money and and people who are somewhat wealthy, let's say, or let's say somewhat wealthy and famous actors, they're all pursuing becoming mega rich. So how can I use this fame to go in on a craft tequila that gets sold for $1,000,000,000 or whatever? So everyone's kind of scheming to make the big money to get on par with the tech billionaires, all the tech billionaires. If you c with Zuck and Elon Musk all want to be celebrities more or less. And so everyone is kind of chasing whatever status criteria they lack. But at the end of the day, I think we're just in a world in which money has won out completely. And some of that is because capitalism just, you know, kept growing and kept succeeding. And financial capital became so big and tech people made so much money that it shifted everything where even old money doesn't have money anymore. I mean, if you're in a trust, a trust fund that's very different than someone who just IPO'd and at the same time the Internet not this was not the point of the Internet, but the Internet's whole purpose is to destroy information inequalities, and that destroys cultural capital. And so that more or less wiped out one of. The avenues that people somewhere in the middle had to gain status. And so it has shifted things way more towards money than before. 

Steven Parton [00:26:41] Do you think this is why we see the rise of kind of more like a cancel culture type of paradigm online where a lot of. Tim says status gains seem to be derived from punishment of norm violations. So you're trying to call out people who went against the norms of your hierarchy so that you can gain status in your hierarchy, largely because the alternative of becoming an expert, becoming somebody who's a well-rounded individual doesn't give you as much status anymore because of that flattening of the informational hierarchy that you pointed out. Does that seem like a reasonable explanation for why maybe we made that shift? 

David Marx [00:27:22] So, I mean, the whole cancel culture phenomenon is much more complicated because there's a group of people in which they had gotten away with committing horrible crimes for many years and they got caught. And the world because of, you know, more justice or more freedom of expression or whatever it was, were called out for horrible behaviors and disappeared. So let's let's take them off and just say that was that there was some sort of actual loophole in which they were getting away with. 

Steven Parton [00:27:55] That was that was just a Seattle. 

David Marx [00:27:57] Okay. So, so then let's say there's like a like a different side, which is people who have done some basic norm violation that in the past would have. Not created a bonfire, but just been like, hey, that's not that wasn't cool to have done that. Or do you really believe that and you have to come out there? No, no, no. Sorry, I shouldn't have said that. Something like that. So I think it's no. Smith The Economist has written a lot about how the social media platforms kind of lend themselves to this. And if Twitter now X disappears, you're going to see less cancel culture. So I think some of it's the media. I think the status component is difficult because I would not necessarily say that people who have led the takedowns and the cancellations have necessarily moved up. But I think there's certainly a sense I can see a sense of frustration at the moment with how calcified the top is that if we can't move up, let's bring people from the top down. And certainly that motivates the the MAGA movement, as far as I can tell as well, which is we're not fighting for actual policies that bring people in our situation forward. We're simply trying to take away from other people so that we move up by default. So I think there could be some of that going on, but it's the fact that cancel culture seems to have. You know, piqued in a certain degree. Makes me think it can't. It can't just be. Well, this is the this is the state of society. I think it was a confluence of a lot of things going on at once. And and then again, I don't want to take away from there was a lot of cancellation of people who needed to have been canceled. 

Steven Parton [00:29:46] Yeah, you did bring up something else there that I think is interesting, which is that, you know, the social media algorithms really have a lot of sway over what's being talked about in the Commons. How do you see that impact on culture itself? Do you feel like social media and these tech platforms really do just have like some lever and dials on culture itself? Like, do they have have they risen to such scale and power that they're literally able to just turn the dial on what what we decide as a species is now the thing we're going to talk about that day? 

David Marx [00:30:20] Yes. And it's not necessarily intentional. And I also for a long time resisted a little bit of over indexing on. Oh, yes, the tech companies control everything. I do think if you look at the music market, it's very difficult not to look at how people listen to music on Spotify versus how they would listen on CDs and not draw some conclusions about the playlist mentality of just you click on a playlist and then whatever comes out comes out. It's very unlikely you're going to become a super fan of any of those artists The way that when I watched MTV's 120 Minutes, which was the 2 hours of alternative videos that you could watch basically every week on MTV, and they put them on Sunday nights and midnight in which I was most definitely asleep, but learned to program my VCR just to to get them on tape that you were incredibly invested because there's only, I don't know, 15, 20 videos and you knew who all the acts were and and all that. And it's not that MTV was some benevolent actor. I mean, that's just that was the format that existed. So I think the tech companies have a format. They have a profit motive. You know, they tweak the algorithms to move in that direction to win engagement. It moves in a certain direction. They're not cultural people. I think in general, Silicon Valley is not a place where people think about culture in that sense. And so what is the output? Well, certainly it does affect kind of what we see now, which is. There's a lot out there that doesn't catch on. And then there's a bunch of things. Mega hits that become bigger mega hits. And you know that one of the great ironies about the Internet was it showed up as, okay, you have all been oppressed for so many years by mass culture that they've taken away choices from you and they've just fed you this cookie cutter of lamestream sheeple content and you're going to now wake up and you're every single person on earth is going to have all these choices and it's gonna be incredible. And it kind of that utopia kind of carried through. And the peak of that is The Long Tail, the Chris Anderson book, which more or less says The secrets to culture and the future in the culture industry is by aggregating the long tail rather than trying to, you know, care about these mega-hits. And the absolute opposite happen, which is the long tail got so long that every single thing in it became devalued. And if you're going to have a cultural experience or you're going to want to have some sort of I saw a movie and I can talk to someone about it, or I feel plugged in because I know this thing, you have to go back to the head. And so I don't think it's a coincidence at all that Taylor Swift is now on her 17th year of being a major pop star. And it doesn't seem to be fading or, you know, Beyonce is the same. And so we have these mega stars because they're the only communal culture that we still have, because you can't have a communal culture with the long tail. And there used to be this situation in the nineties where you had a very short, long tail, where everyone who was into an alternative more or less had to inhabit the same world. And now the alternatives are so plentiful that in some ways they're all meaningless and valueless. And so it's when you get to the tech companies, yes, they can aggregate long tail and monetize it, but they can't give it value because nobody can give it value. And this is the thing. It's complicated with culture. Entertainment is we think about it as simply, is this a good song or not? If I listen to the song, do I like it? And we don't understand the context of it matters a lot. If other people know what the song is or somebody recommended it to you, whose taste you respect, etc., etc.. So when we take that value away, the culture does become valueless. The one additional thing I'll say about this, and this is a point raised by Matt Iglesias, somebody stealing it from him, but it used to be if you read some sort of complicated book and you went to your teachers and said, Oh, I just read this book, they say, Oh, here's the next four, even more complicated books you should read if you're interested in that. And so in general, what influencer? Like, influencer was not a word we use, but influencers, let's say pre-Internet were people tastemakers. Teachers were people who knew a lot more than you and deeper knowledge than you. And so if you went to them looking for more recommendations, they would always level you up into more, more complex things that you would not find on your own. What an algorithm does is the absolute opposite, which it says If you were interested in this very specific video on the genetic problems that Great Pyrenees dogs have, here's some cute, great pianist puppies. Oh, if you like that, here's some just puppies. And so it kind of down levels you to whatever the lowest common denominator popular thing is rather than up leveling you to if you like this, maybe try these more difficult things. And you know, human beings in general have a resistance to complexity unless there's a very small amount of people who probably seek out more and more complexity. But in general, if they're faced with something they don't understand immediately, it takes them something to push them through it. And so it used to be if you had somewhat of a negative peer pressure of, well, this cool record clerk says I should listen to this record, I don't understand it at all, but I'm going to keep listening. Then you would push through and maybe you'd finally get it because the complexity would make sense to you. But now, you know, we're inundated with so much of this symbolic simplicity that makes sense to us instantly. And we can just surround our entire day in, you know, a wall of things that we instantly understand and receive instant gratification. And there really, as I said before, there's no cultural capital to gain from pushing through and liking the complex thing. It takes an incredible amount of discipline and self-interest in complexity in order to to find and pursue more complex things. So, yeah, the Internet certainly has changed this. I would I would say it's not a conspiracy to destroy culture, but it's just their business models and the algorithms are going to push you to more engagement. And that's what happens. 

Steven Parton [00:36:49] Yeah, well, I mean, how do you feel about this idea that we're losing the value of that cultural capital? I mean, you've said this a few time now, a few times now. And that sentence kind of when you say that every time it hits me a little bit and I'm just like, man, that feels like a really profound thing to say. Like, what are the implications of cultural capital being something that seems to carry less weight? 

David Marx [00:37:13] This is certainly something I'm thinking about too. And it's not that necessarily there is no cultural capital because to go to the right restaurant still carries meaning for a lot of people or to be into the right fashion brands. You know, I'm still interested in clothing and there's most certainly points you would get for being early on a trend versus late on a trend. So those things are all real. It's just it doesn't dominate the culture the way it used to. And there's a lot less elitism. There's easy it's easy to kind of point to cultural capital's bad sides because most certainly it was not equally distributed. You know, in pure body. This whole thing is the cultural capital as a way to oppress people without oppressing them. And cultural capital also means it's good to define what it means because people think it means like if you read Proust, then you have cultural capital. And what it really entails is there is a world in a elite world of really wealthy people and really wealthy, really important people, and to be in that world and we will have a conversation with the people in that world. And to be accepted as one of them, you have to know a lot of manners, behaviors, knowledge and all of that is what cultural capital really is. And it just happened at some point that high art and culture was was a very strong part of that in the sense of to be an elite. In the 10th century, you had to more or less know how the art world operated and you went to symphonies and ballets and those kind of things. So those worlds were, you know, interacted a lot. I think they they do less now. So some of the downfall of cultural capital is not just that the Internet devalues knowledge, but it's also that the the very wealthy people are not the patrons of art the way they used to be. And so art has kind of fallen out of that as well. So, you know, one of the effects of, let's just say information and knowledge and rare information of knowledge, what I like to call cultural arbitrage, kind of, you know, not being as powerful anymore. And it's easy to also say, well, if people like simple things and this cultural capital tended to be complex, symbolic things, then the downfall of it is not bad because more people get more mass culture and that's all they want in the first place. And so I've seen that argument more or less that people were were bullied into liking more difficult things than they should have had to consume. And therefore, now we're in a world where everything works. I think that doesn't take into account that people get bored very quickly with the conventions that they know. And so you probably see this now with the Marvel Universe, MCU movies, which is at some point they're very exciting. At some point it's everyone is kind of fatigued from them and they are being too formulaic. And so when things become too formulaic, they lose their cultural punch. And so then the question is where do these new changes to the formula come from? And what they usually come from is the the complex ideas that are brought in by people in pursuit of cultural capital. So that could again, be a marginalized group. It could be filtered through knowledge workers who are looking to marginalized groups for ideas. But that whole ecosystem ended up refreshing that culture in a way that people in that were consumers of match culture didn't necessarily understand was happening, but they were always getting this nice refresh where things felt a little bit edgy and new, but also familiar enough where they could consume it. And so the problem is that there isn't that constant flow and there isn't this anxiety about always bringing in what's cutting edge among mass culture producers if they're just now saying, Oh, we have this algorithm that tells us this song is a 78% chance of hitting, so let's go with the one that's 80% and it doesn't have necessarily new artistic choices. Then you do start to get stagnation. I think it's very difficult to make a claim that we're not in a period of some sort of cultural stasis. There just aren't the same kind of decade defining fashion trends that there used to be. There is a lot of legacy IP that's happening. I was singing about Star Wars growing up. What was cool about Star Wars is how little information there was on it. There was literally the three movies. There was a set of toys, there were some novelizations. If you wanted to really geek out, there was a role playing game if you really wanted to geek out. But that was about it. And so if you wanted to know more about Boba Fett or whatever, mean that that was, you have, you know, a page worth of information and that was it. And now it's like there's an entire TV show. There's so many Star Wars TV shows that you can't even watch them all. And so there's no mystery to the IP that existed. But what was cool about that IP in the first place was that it was it was limited in supply. So so we're in this period of stasis, there's some good TV shows, there's still good whatever. It's just it's not defining. There are these big changes that define the era that the way they used to. And so I think that's 100% related to the fact that cultural capital has been devalued and it's a pretty complex chain of events that gets you there. But it again, it's just if you think about culture as an ecosystem and you think about someone in the ecosystem has to be motivated to bring in new ideas because the the market is not going to be motivated to do things that people don't immediately under. And cultural capital was a nice incentive. As much as there's there's terrible pernicious status reasons for why people pursue cultural capital, it did bring in complexity to the cultural markets. 

Steven Parton [00:43:04] Yeah, I like that point about the liberation there, but it does make me think about the sociological concept of a know me, this idea that there's kind of like a enormous ness or a lack of cultural norms that we can reliably point to, to know what to value in society. And I wonder if that constant change that we're seeing now, I think, for instance, I saw that something that stays at the top of the trending chart stays there now for around 12 to 14 hours or so. So two times in a day we shift the thing that we're talking about that day, like we can't even get through an entire day thinking about one major event in the world. It feels like that would be very disorienting. And I wonder, do you feel like that's something that maybe we are struggling with right now because of how quickly these trends change, because of how there isn't these stand out things that we can point to and kind of grab on to. We end up kind of feeling tugged between these many things that are changing so rapidly. And that kind of gives us a, as you said, an anxiety, but maybe one that's really quite bad in this case. 

David Marx [00:44:12] There most certainly is some human need for structured narrative to understand the world and to doubt, you know, create values and to understand one's place in it. And they're in the 20th century perhaps was an over narration and the historical lines were a little clean. I heard the art critic Jerry Saltz recently complaining that modernist art was insane, I think is the word he used because it was built on this. You know, you have impressionism that liberates us from painting photographic realist things. You have then, you know, a movement into, let's say, fauvism that breaks out color even more. And then you have cubism that adds a third dimension of futures, and that's a fourth image. And so you have this kind of sense of teleological progression toward some perfect art that, you know, encompasses all, all human perception. And everything was always in antagonism to the thing before it. And so you got this really nice historical narrative, and then you have postmodernism and the whole narrative falls apart. There's just stuff happening and maybe there was always stuff happening, but we forced it into this story. But the story was easy, and that's why modern art is much more value than postmodern art, and that's why the 20th century is much more memorable than the 21st century. Because we can say, I can tell you the difference between 1884 and 1987. In a way, I cannot tell you the difference between 2009 and 2012 or something, right? I mean, Obama versus Trump. Yes. But, you know, it's very difficult for me to remember, Oh, that movie was so 2011. Whereas if you look in the sixties and especially in the sixties, I think it was the exception, not the rule. But if you see a movie from 64 over 66, they just the clothing, the, the, the, the film, they all look different. Help and A Hard Day's Night, the two Beatles movies, I think they're 6465 look totally different. Right? They were either from a different era. If you look at people's lapels on jackets, you can date movies. You just can't do that anymore. And so if you watch The Bourne Identity, which I saw on a plane and I, I just couldn't date it. I was like, I don't know, this could be the nineties, it could be now, but I think it was a 22, but almost nothing except for the hairstyles were like slightly off, but everything more or less looked like today. So we don't have a good way to, to install a narrative on our lives because there is too much happening and there's a lot of fury. You can read from the sixties where people said this was going to happen. So it's not it's not exactly out of nowhere, but that, you know, the postmodernism as in being liberated from this strict historical narrative, you know, again, is probably more realistic and it probably is more inclusive and anybody can contribute. But by moving away from this, we just don't remember it very well. It just doesn't cut it. You know, I in the book I call this historical value, which is that we remember things. Things take on value because they help us mark time and they could be relics. You know, people I think about Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, which is not a good book by any measure, but it's just a book we remember and value because it tells a certain story about progressivism in the early 20th century. And then this things like, you know, James Dean or Elvis or someone who would just have this historical value as being forever the hallmark of what it means to be rock and roll and cool. So if we're not creating those things, then we're taking away this historical value from so much culture. And culture is is founded on this. You don't you're not going to a tradition based off a 27 thing that no one remembers. Right. 

Steven Parton [00:48:03] Do you think then as we kind of come to a close here, as we look forward, are there things that you think we're going to see that of this era that have a historical value? Or do you see trends dominating right now that you think are going to have a predictable trajectory into the future? Or at this point, are you kind of like your hands are up in the air and you're like, who knows where this is going? 

David Marx [00:48:26] The one thing I would say is it's very clear that the more you have these micro trends, you kind of have, you know, either fads or these big macro trends and the fads or not memorable. And this, you know, that meme popped up and then it disappeared. So I'm thinking about this is going to date the podcast like instantly, but the cop falling down the slide, it's like the biggest deal in the world for two days and then no one in the future is ever going to think about this again, right? And so you have all these micro fads that no one really invest in and everyone forgets the same time, the macro. And you see this, let's just say fashion, it's very superficial, but have clothing, has clothes gotten very skinny and now it's going to get big again. Yeah. Like those things that that movement still happens because the same mechanism of trendy, trendy people do it, elites do it, and then the market follows and then mass market people. Consciously follow those trends and then once they do it, the league can't do it anymore. They have to do something different. So those things are still in operation and they move slowly. At the same time, the macro trends on the political side of, say, how divided America is at the moment, that is going to be memorable. I mean, that is going to define our era. People are not going to forget about that because it is that narrative of there's a fundamental divide in the United States, if not just one, but multiple. But, you know, these divides in the United States are going you know, they manifest in the politics, they manifest in the culture, they manifest in the economy. And when you write the history about it, that is the thing you're going to focus on. And so if we live in the age of division or the age of Trump or whatever it is, that is going to be the way we remember it this time. The same way 911 was the moment of the twins. So there's no question that there will be something. But it's that is going to be a broad period in which your sense of the difference being 20 1718 is going to be very minimal. Whereas, again, you know, if it weren't for the sixties, we wouldn't even think this. But in in the sixties there was this very strange thing where you could say 1964 versus 1968 are totally different universes of. In 1964, people are complaining that the Beatles bangs are, you know, unbelievably obscene. And, you know, we've got to deal with the social problem. And by 68, you have universities being taken over by radical students and hippies and drugs. And by 69 you have ultimately Manson. So, you know, that was a huge, huge amount of change in a small amount of time. And it's probably never going to happen again unless something, you know, radical happens with media or something. But at the moment, I think that that McCUTCHEON will stick with us. But we are having a problem because there was a point in which these smaller trends were ways we marked time. And, you know, part of the reason they get devalued is because we don't invest ourselves in something we know is a fad. And I think that's always been true. But it used to be these things were presented to us not as a fad, you know, a thing. The the better music is alternative music. And so if you listened to this, you were becoming that person and you would listen to it for a long time. But if you just told Planet of Base or you know, this is the song of the summer and it's just a joke, you're going to enjoy that joke and you're going to move on. And so everything is just a frivolous fad slash joke and you don't get the deep cultural value that you got out of things when they were presented as real. And that takes away something from our lives. And these values are real values. And because they're not in an economic textbook the way that they use value or exchange value, you know, or then we don't think about them. But I think that that that's that is where life, prosperity, beauty and all these other important things that make our lives more than just being, you know, economic or rational biological come from. 

Steven Parton [00:52:42] Yeah, well said. What David, as we come to a close here, I want to give you a chance to leave us with any final words. Was there something that maybe you thought about along the way or something that you want to mention before we go that you'd like to draw attention to? 

David Marx [00:52:56] I think the main thing I would say at the moment is there's so much talk about generative AI and where A.I. is going to take us, and for a long time AI and automation focused on the economic impact. And certainly the impact on labor is going to be big. But now we're moving into what does it mean to be human? If I can create words and pictures and all these things and our best, both understanding and comprehension of this phenomena as well as perhaps prevention or if people want to fight back, is to understand how culture works in the first place. And, you know, that is what I was trying to do with the book, is to give you some rules about why we value arbitrary things, because, again, that's what culture is. I think that computers will have a hard time convincing us to like their arbitrary creations over human ones. But again, these are the kind of principles that you only understand if you understand culture. So, you know, the irony, I guess, is this is a great time to understand the human valuation of arbitrary behaviors that are implicit in culture. And so the tech of AI is now moved into a realm where I think we do need to spend more time going back and understanding humanity and the process of creativity and not in a kind of sham way, but just what is what is the what is the actual thing that is happening when somebody proposes a new idea and it diffuses through society? Why do people accept it? You know, all those sociological and anthropological principles should be common knowledge. And at the moment there isn't. You know, high school class about this, for example, you have to really wanted to know this information. And so there's never been a better time to learn it. And the more that I progresses, I think the more of these questions are going to bubble up there. 

Steven Parton [00:54:44] I couldn't agree more. David, thank you for your time. 

David Marx [00:54:47] Thank you so much. 

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