In some ways, traditional culture and modern culture are alike. Any culture is a system of learned and shared meanings. People learn and share things over the course of generations, and so we say they are a culture. Traditional and modern culture function similarly because both are ways of thinking, ways of relating to people and to the universe.
The beginning of culture was language. The first word was culture. Someone looked up from whatever else was going on and said something, and that first word was the building block of all human culture. You could pass it around. You could imitate it or change it. Its meaning could be shared among people.
Maybe the word was "food" or "love" or "God." It doesn't matter what the word was, what language it began, or when or how. It just was. And the word constituted culture, because the word carried meaning.
If there were only one concept to be considered in the discussion of culture, it is this: meaning. How do we know whether the group of letters a-p-p-l-e represents that sweet-tart yellow or red fruit, or a brand name of computer? How do we know whether the group of letters l-e-a-d represents that blue-gray metallic chemical element, or the verb that signifies "to show the way?" How do we know what a person's intentions are when they wave their hand at us from across the street? It is because we have learned to share the meanings of words.
Of course meanings are not limited to written words but began with thought words and spoken words, signed words, gestured words, pictured words. All these kinds of words carry meaning. And it is in the meanings of things that culture resides, regardless of whether it is traditional or modern culture. So we can commence with the idea that our traditional ancestors, like their modern descendants, learned and shared meanings.
Traditional and modern culture are alike in another way. Both developed to accommodate their surroundings. Both traditional and modern culture work for people because they are suited to local environmental conditions. A farming culture would not work as well in Antarctica. Inuit (Eskimo) culture would not survive as well in the Sahara. Bedouin culture would not function as well in Manhattan. Culture of any kind works best (and longest) if it is well adapted to local conditions.
It should perhaps be noted that there is apparently nothing genetic about the presence or absence of traditional culture; traditional culture is not the sole province of any one ethnic group. For example, in ancient Europe the Celts and Teutons lived traditional culture. In ancient North America the Anishinabe and Lakota lived traditional culture. In ancient Africa the Bantu and Yoruba lived traditional culture. At some point back in history all human beings -- regardless of what continent they occupied and which ethnic group they constituted -- all lived in a traditional tribal culture.
Modern culture developed in some areas of the planet as human societies grew larger. Mass organization in some form -- first the development of large work forces and armies, and later the development of mechanized means of production -- was an important force in changing traditional culture into modern culture. The shift from rural life to urban life is at the core of the development of modern culture.
While traditional and modern culture may be similar in some ways, in some very significant ways they are clearly different from each other. Traditional culture, such as our human ancestors enjoyed, is held together by relationships among people -- immediate family, extended family, clan and tribe. Everyone lives nearby. Everyone knows how he or she fits into the mix because relationships, and the behaviors that go along with them, are clearly defined. "Brother" is someone toward whom I must act like a brother. "Uncle" is someone from whom I expect a certain kind of behavior. If I violate what is expected, everyone will know. Perhaps there will be severe consequences.
But this does not rob the humans who live traditional culture of their individuality. Some brothers act differently from other brothers. Some uncles take on different roles depending, for example, on whether they are mother's brother or father's brother, or whether they are particularly gregarious or more somber, and so on. But in general, well-defined family and clan relationships, and the kinship terms that signal them, make daily operations in traditional society take a workable course. If you have the proper relationship with someone, you can get just about anything accomplished. If, on the other hand, you don't have the proper relationship, you find it difficult, if not impossible, to accomplish anything. You learn that kinship terms are key phrases in getting along. In traditional culture, relationships and people seem to be what matters.
In the modern culture of mainstream America, most people live in nuclear families: Mom and Dad and 2.5 kids. Many have only occasional contact with family members outside the immediate household. Young people quickly learn that their importance depends on how many and what kind of things they can control. Eventually they learn that power -- personal, economic, social, political, religious, whatever -- gets things done. Modern culture has a tendency to spread out, to build empires, to capitalize on as many resources as possible. Modern culture seems to be held together by power and things, not by people and relationships.
In modern culture people learn that business life is separate from personal life, for example that church and state can be kept apart. We learn to compartmentalize our lives. During the week we can be shrewd business-makers in a competitive marketplace where there are happy winners and tragic losers. On the weekend we can go to church or temple and ask forgiveness for our transgressions, and then go back on Monday and start all over again. We learn (in some form) two key phrases: "It's nothing personal, but..." and "It's just business."
But in traditional culture things are not that simple -- business life and personal life are often the same thing. Partners in trade and other economic activities are generally the same people as one's kin relations. Similarly, the principles and values that guide spiritual and ceremonial life are the same principles and values that guide political life. Thus in traditional culture, the compartmentalizing or separating of business and personal life, of religious and political life, would not work. You cannot separate how you treat your trade partners from how you treat your cousins if they are the same people. You cannot separate your spiritual values from your political values if they are the same values.
Another way in which the two differ is that traditional culture tends to stay relatively the same for long periods of time. It is basically a conservative system. Does this mean that new ideas are not incorporated from time to time, that traditional culture is static? Certainly not. The traditional culture of our ancestors changed in response to the same kinds of forces that produce biological change.
The invention of new things in traditional culture (for example, new technologies such as ceramics or the bow and arrow) work in the same way as genetic mutations: something unusual happens, and things after that are different. Preferences for especially useful things and ideas in traditional culture work in the same way as natural selection: something does a better job or is more desirable in some way, so it becomes more common thereafter. Ways of thinking and doing things in traditional cultures flow from one culture to another just like genes flow from one biological population to another: folks come into contact, something gets exchanged. Isolation of a small, unusual sample of people in a traditional culture causes whatever that thing is that makes them unusual to become more common in future generations (for example, if a small group of people sets off to start a new village, and they all just happen to like to wear their hair a certain way, then their offspring would tend to wear their hair that way too) -- in just the same way that genetic drift operates. Ancient traditional culture did change. But it was such a conservative system that it tended to resist change whenever it could.
In contrast, modern culture thrives on change. It creates new goods and services, and teaches us to want them. It adds new technologies, things and ideas at an increasingly rapid rate, such that the amount of cultural change experienced in America between 1950 and 2000 is far greater than the amount of change experienced in the entire eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in America. Change in modern culture is propelled by all the same forces that cause change in traditional culture, only in modern culture the changes happen more quickly. Modern culture is a more mutable system that tends to change often.
Another way in which traditional culture and modern culture differ is in their relationship to environment. Traditional cultures lived in close contact with their local environment. This taught that nature must be respected, cooperated with, in certain ritualized ways. One did not make huge changes in the environment, beyond clearing fields for agriculture and villages. Society saw itself as part of nature; its spiritual beliefs and values held humans as the kinsmen of plants and animals.
In contrast, modern culture creates its own environment, exports that cultural environment to colonies in far away places. It builds cities and massive structures. It teaches that nature is meant to be manipulated, to be the source of jobs and wealth for its human masters. It sees itself as being above nature. Its religions commonly cast humans as the pinnacle of nature: at best its paternalistic supervisors, at worst its righteous conquerors.
These differences in the way traditional and modern culture perceive and interact with the environment have various consequences for the humans in those cultures. Not the least of these is the difference in sustainability. A culture that lives in relative harmony with its environment has a greater likelihood of sustaining itself than does a culture that destroys its environment. The culture of our human ancestors existed for thousands of years without doing any substantive damage to the ecosystem. In a very few centuries modern culture has eliminated or endangered numerous plant and animal species, degraded many waterways and negatively impacted the health of many of its citizens: "better" living through chemistry!
A closely related comparison between traditional and modern culture concerns ways of thinking. Modern culture is built upon knowledge. The more bits of knowledge one controls -- a larger database, a larger computer memory -- the more power one has. Modern culture produces new bits of knowledge so rapidly that sometimes our computers tell us "Memory is Full!" People in modern culture are more likely to feel that things are changing, that bits of knowledge are coming at them, so rapidly that they cannot absorb it all, cannot make sense of it all. Modern culture is long in knowledge.
The traditional culture had a broad base of knowledge, as well. All plants and animals in the local environment were known by name and by their potential usefulness to humans. Weather, geology, astronomy, medicine, politics, history, language and so on were all parts of a complex integrated body of knowledge. But in traditional culture life went on beyond knowledge, to the level of wisdom -- seeing the patterns in the bits of knowledge -- and to the level of understanding -- realizing that there are more profound patterns made by the patterns of wisdom.
Take medicine as an example. Traditional man had a pain in his stomach; he found a plant in his local environment that had a certain medicinal property. These were bits of knowledge. If he prepared the plant's leaves a certain way, and drank the tea that resulted, it would make the pain in his stomach go away. This is a scientific method, a process that involves seeing the pattern in the bits of knowledge: x (the plant) goes with y (the preparation) to produce z (the treatment). This realizing of patterns is what I call wisdom. Both modern and traditional culture go this far, but here they often tend to diverge.
Eventually this traditional ancestor realized that there were all kinds of plant treatments for all kinds of ills -- that for every ailment there was a treatment -- and that there was a balancing act that operated on a universal scale of which he was but a small part. There was a harmony that could become disturbed if he destroyed the forest in which the plants grew, or if he overestimated himself by taking for granted the wisdom he had gained about the plants -- and this harmony had to be maintained on all levels (physical, social, environmental, spiritual, etc.). This realization that the patterns of wisdom were themselves connected in higher order patterns was the beginning of what I call understanding. The traditional culture of our ancestors was long in understanding, whereas modern culture frequently seems to stop the thought process at the level of wisdom.
In modern culture, the elders tend to think of traditional culture as "primitive," "backward," somehow "childlike." In traditional culture, on the other hand, the elders tend to think of modern culture as "hollow," "ignorant," somehow "childlike." But modern culture tends to take over traditional culture because modern culture is powerful: it is mechanized, it moves mountains, it digs canals and drains swamps, it overwhelms, and it is seductive -- it glitters, it tastes sweet, it goes fast. And it advertises.
So why do so many people these days seem to be refugees from modern culture? Why are so many people who were raised in the ways of modern culture now so interested in traditional American Indian or Celtic culture? Why is there a constant stream of people searching for a "new age," for "medicine men" and powwows and traditional ceremonies and Highland games?
I think it is because there is a hole in modern culture, where the truly important spiritual and humane parts of life used to be. Put another way, I think that inside modern man there is a traditional man somewhere -- who wants the security of feeling connected to an extended family and a clan of other humans -- who longs for the pleasure of hearing stories told around the hearth -- who resonates to the steady drum rhythm or the haunting bagpipe wail -- who plods through his anxious dreams grasping at bits of knowledge, thirsting, perhaps unknowingly, for the cool, delicious harmony of understanding. I believe the shift from traditional to modern culture was one of man's greatest falls from grace.