Economics Not Culture

Serdar Yegulyap and I have been having a scattered dialogue about science fiction, culture, and economics as of late, mostly over at his blog.

(As he and I are both fans of old-school correspondence, I’m working to make sure I do part.  I want to see what can be done with a blog-implemented, old-school correspondence on issues. Hell, we might get a book out of it.)

Frankly, I am concerned Economy has replaced Culture in America.

I should note first of all that I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive – in society institutions blend into each other. So for the sake of discussion I consider Economy to focus around the exchange of good, information, and services; I consider Culture to be the values, principles, stories, and concepts that shape identity, interaction, and community sense of vision.

Yes, that’s quite general, but as noted there is ambiguity.

My concern therefore is that American culture is not so much obsessed with economics, money, business, etc. – that it essentially is economics, business, etc. The value of cultural idea and ideals is largely based on economic exchange, and in short suffers from the same shortsightedness our entire economy suffers from.

Now I’m not so naive to think economics has not influenced culture throughout history. Many a feudal lord, scheming priest, clever shaman, or smart politician realizes certain ideas get them fame, money, and companionship. I’m saying that A) it’s a bad idea for long-term viability of a culture and its people, and B) I think we have it at a very pronounced level.

Our large cultural events are all carefully marketed and maximized for profit. Films, reality television, etc. We’re caught between giant pricey blockbusters and cheap and sleazy reality television. There’s not enough content out there that isn’t designed just to bring in huge amounts of dollars. Oddly, one of the reasons I’m supportive of fantoms is it’s a form of “re-ownership.” Well, that and there is some pretty good media out there despite the bad stuff.

Our cultural institutions are oddly short-term, with a few exceptions like the ambitious Marvel movieverse (which I fear is technocratic filmmaking). Thus we recycle things a few years later, make the same film over and over, and jump on trends very quickly. It’s the equivalent of short-sighted investing and people obsessed with single-quarter results. There’s little foundation or value beyond the fact someone gets money out of this – we are being sold things which have little value, the time pursuing them is rarely an investment of any kind.

(I am not against mindless entertainment; I indulge in it quite a bit myself. But I’m against it being marketed and perceived as something it’s not, and against it being culturally dominant).

Our religious institutions, formal and informal, have heavy commercial elements. There are giant megachurches, evangelists with their TV and internet followings, and of course the inevitable books, guides, aids, and so forth. There’s always some new book or guide promising you how to “get it right” that will soon be replaced with another. The latest new age knockoffs and the latest mainstream religious books seem to be depressingly familiar.

In fact, our religious institutions and their commercial elements also show short-term thinking. We’ve got flavor-of-the-day religious theories; where once Russia would cause the apocalypse, now it’s Muslims. There’s religious niche fiction and media, treating believers as a simple demographic. Trends come and go easily and quickly. Everyone is writing their “Left Behind” to the point where I have to consider “Rapture Fiction” it’s own genre.

Throw in the “Prosperity Gospel” and “End Times Wealth Transfer” and a lot of Christianity, America’s dominant religion, is just about economics.

Finally, our news and politics is largely entertainment. Conspiracy theories are a large-scale ideology, and the latest thing is quickly integrated into talking points; again, short-term thinking. Politics is profitable. It’s hard to watch anything happen in real life and not see people immediately repeat talking points for their “side” – “Too Soon?” is a question we stopped asked awhile ago.

“The chief business of the American people is business,” said Calvin Coolidge. However he was famously concerned about the results of greed and money for money’s sake. A shame no one listened to those quotes, and just repeat variants of the first one.

The end result of this replacement of culture with economy is, to my mind, a curiously shallow culture, despite a wide array of offerings (some of which are quite good). The shallow and quickly profitable predominates, people adopt the idea of business as a metaphor for life and everything else, yet there’s no foundation laid. The Invisible Hand becomes an invoked timeless principle, a substitute for a rather absent God who’s priests and preachers are busy hawking self-help books. People shrug at the latest economic disaster (as long as it doesn’t affect them), and seem to be unable to contemplate avoiding the disasters. The next thing comes up and get’s people’s attention and whatever past mess happened, something else replaces it (unless it’s a profitable or juicy scandal).

It is a culture without culture, without foundation or identity, since it’s hard to remember who you are when someone will sell you a new identity a few minutes from now. It’s hard to plan for the long term when it’s not even part of your cultural viewpoint – and as I survey the wreck of many an economy, a little long-term thinking would be nice.

Of course it doesn’t have to be like this, and frankly I can see it reversing as people cope with a kind of void of culture that leads to a hangover of ennui and confusion. I’d just rather we go “oh, hey, this is awful” and prevent the hangover. For that matter, decoupling our goals from crass commercialism as early as possible would be rather nice.

Now lest anyone think my soap box is too high, I’ve fallen into this trap a few times as well, with short-term thinking, economic unawareness, etc. I’ve jumped on trends or found my discussions degenerating into jargon, or worse assumed other people “really got it” when I realized later I was spouting stupidity or using the language of economics not culture. So I am probably quite forgiving about our situation.

I just don’t like it.

– Steven Savage

Steven Savage is a Geek 2.0 writer, speaker, blogger, and job coach.  He blogs on careers at, nerd and geek culture at, and does a site of creative tools at He can be reached at