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The speed of cultural change

Published on 24 May 2015
Updated on 05 April 2024

“Irish voters have decisively voted in favor of marriage equality, making Ireland the first country to do so through the ballot box. Only one of the 43 constituencies voted against the proposal.”[1] In other words, both rural and urban voters chose to endorse the social innovation.

What is interesting to me is not so much the result, but what I perceive as a rapid change in attitudes, which surprised me.

To explain by analogy: until 1970, fertility rates in Ireland fluctuated around four children per woman. A generation later, in 1990, the rate was slightly more than two and has remained stable ever since.[2] While dramatic, one could chalk up this change to personal experience: families chose quality rather than quantity when it comes to reproduction.

In the case of marriage equality, however, personal experience was not a deciding factor – the number of “equal marriages” will remain minute. What seems to prevail is a sensibility that shows respect for minorities. This development also took place roughly within a generation.

Cultural change seems to be fast – even when experience does not drive it. The process is faster than I judged likely.

Of course, one can put the matter down to our living in “liquid” times.[3] The vertical structures have lost their grip on people, who now dance to a more collaborative tune. People are forming opinions not by listening to established opinion leaders, but from networks. As the vertical structures fade, a “default position” of cooperation and generosity seems to emerge. The vote may be grounded in selfless altruism – one strike against calculating selfishness!

Lest I am accused of being a deluded optimist, I’ll throw in the next social challenge: privately-owned drones. One can freely buy one of these gadgets for around 50 €, and miniature ones come for even less.


This gadget will become a mass phenomenon very soon – the gadget is just too trivial and enticing – we could all become virtual voyeuristic birds. Not only are we going to have the state spying on us all (for own good – of course), but the neighbors will also send them over the fence and disturb our privacy.

Historically, privacy seems to be an emergent concept – some would argue that it came into its own after the Renaissance. It correlates with both individuality and private property. Indeed, in many ways privacy seems to be the immaterial mirror of property. The bourgeoisie was very keen on both.

What will we do? Lazily cheer the drone as it flies over us – or grab the trusty gun and blast it out of the sky? Will we hack them, making them Trojan Horses for our purposes? The scenarios are infinite. So are the unintended consequences of their presence, capture, or demise.

My personal fear is that of a state-imposed drone-etiquette. We no longer trust individuals to sort matters out informally. All has to be set out in a mash of paragraphs – to be interpreted by a drove of lawyers.

Shocks are hitting the social system from all sides. The responses seem to be contingent possibilities, rather than a stately march forward – our dream of progress. We better get used to it: we cannot predict the future or connect the dots forward. Which may be a good thing after all: I am very much taken by Albert O. Hirschman’s idea that people have a right to what he called a “non-projected future.”[4]


[1] https://bit.ly/1F9aXRP

[2] https://bit.ly/1drxKBE

[3] See e.g. Zygmunt BAUMAN (2007): Liquid times: living in an age of uncertainty. Polity, London.

[4] Jeremy ADELMAN (2013): Worldly philosopher. The odyssey of Albert O. Hitschman. Princeton University Press, New Haven.

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