We now live (at least in the USA) in such a divided and divisive political climate that I hesitate to bring up something that sounds political but really isn’t. I don’t even have a position, at least as of yet. It’s just a thought I had while I was reaching out to people in India and inviting them to my blog.
Here it is. The USA has a very competitive and individualistic culture. It’s been that way my whole life, but now, it’s insanely so. For one thing, people spend proportionally much more time watching TV and playing on the Internet than they do interacting face to face. In effect, everyone is “competing” not just with local talent, but with people from all over the country. In a nation of 330,000,000 people, 329,999,999 of them will not be the best runner in the country. The vast majority of people will never be winners. This may be why lotto and the Reader’s Digest drawing may be so appealing to so many.
But it isn’t just running, and throwing, and high jump where we see competition. We have contests around human activities that have traditionally been mainly about bonding and cooperating, not about competing and winning. We have contests about cooking, and dancing, and singing. I grant you that in the past, small communities might have a dancing contest, once a year. But most of their activity was cooperative activity face to face, and certainly not cutthroat competition. Now, the contest is not part of the yearly festival. The contest is all there is. And, for the most part, the contest is all that is broadcast.
It seems that we here in America, with many exceptions and so on, have a culture of individuality and contest is everything there is. Oh, and of course, money. For instance, for far too many Americans the first question they ask about anything is “how much money?” I’ve seen articles that purport to tell retirees what the best place to retire is. Some of those articles focus solely on the financial aspects. Some articles ask which college provides the best education but all they really talk about is ROI.
We’ve actually accomplished a lot as a nation with this kind of crazy culture. It helped us achieve in terms of invention, discovery, and innovation. But what if the problems of the 21st century are of a fundamentally different nature? What if most of the problems we faced in the 20th century resonated well with a culture that encouraged competition, but that now, as we embark on the 21st century, the nature of problems has shifted. Perhaps now we face problems that require a much more collaborative and cooperative cultural attitude in order to solve?
Naturally, these are large trends that I’m talking about. Not every single problem we faced changed lock-step overnight. Let’s examine some examples though. A 1930’s problem might be: “How can we clear cut this forest as cheaply as possible?” And the logging company that solved that problem “won” and got rich. A 2030’s problem might be framed this way: “Is it feasible to provide material by using this forest in a sustainable and humane fashion? How?” One lends itself fairly well to top-down direction. One does not. The reader can guess which is which.
A 1950’s problem might be: “How can we entice consumers into buying one of our new cars when their old car still works?” A 2050’s problem might be: “How do we provide a transportation system that is effective, efficient, and pleasant for everyone involved?” One is about manipulation and disregards collateral damage. The other collaboratively looks to a sustainable solution without side-effects that are so negative they outweigh the good done by the transportation system.
Can American culture evolve quickly enough to be a partner on the world stage in the 21st century? If not, the absolute best we can hope for is slow decay full of internal bickering and hostility as people point fingers and shout loudly in order to establish blame.
Do we really need to change our culture and change it quickly to avoid that? Or, is the emphasis on competition and individuality still the right way to go?
Other countries and cultures are already ahead of us in cooperation. Look at the cost versus benefits of their health care systems for one.
How can we change and work together as a culture to a develop a more cooperative view when we seem to be so divided and competitive? That is a real puzzle.
Do you have a piece of that puzzle? I’d love to hear about it.
Or, do you think we should “double down” on competition and individuality? I’d love to hear about that as well.