Culture is like a glacier*

Posted on 13/02/2011

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During Internet Week 2010 I narrowly missed out on tickets to a great event: Metaphwoar. In the spirit of similes such as “planning is like cooking“, I’ve come up with my own.

Culture is like a glacier.*

It’s a tricky thing to pin down, culture. We can recognise the pieces that, make it up but to able to accurately describe what the whole mess looks like is nigh impossible. Until today, of course, when you’ll be sufficiently enlightened to tackle this problem, using some geography speak.

First off, what is a glacier? It’s a large, slowly moving, mass of ice that flows down certain valleys in mountainous areas. They’re formed when enough snow piles up over time and instead of melting, hardens to become ice. As the ice gets heavier, it starts to slide downhill and a glacier is born. Still confused? Watch this video:

What does a glacier have to do with culture? Well, they both work in the same way:

– They start in small enclaves and only get moving when enough mass has been built up. Glaciers form in small dips at the top of valleys called “cols”, and only get going once snow has been building up for some time. Like cultural movements, there has to be enough weight for the whole thing to get moving.  mass movement it has a

– It’s plastic yet powerful: glaciers both shape and are shaped by the world around them. Sometimes the ice mass will wear away at any obstacles that get in its way, in the same way that some trends overtake others replacing them. Mobile devices like smartphones and tablets are gradually eroding laptop and desktop sales as people become more mobile and require technology for different purposes.

At the same time glaciers must also follow the path of the valley they’re in. If a valley is made of particularly hard rock, glaciers have relatively little effect on them. They are shaped by the more resistant rock and have to flow around it. The same is true of culture- sometimes cultural trends mold themselves around more resistant issues. Credit cards, for example are less popular in countries like Germany and Japan because people have historically had a different attitude towards their finances.

– It gets bigger as it goes along. Glaciers pick up rocks which then become part of the glacier. Culture is continually picking up new traits and features. Take memes for example- these are continually forming then being forgotten. Only the ones with the most momentum behind them (like Old Spice Guy or I haz cheeseburger) are carried along and adopted into our culture.

– Its lifespan depends on momentum. Glaciers need to be continually supplied with snow to keep growing; culture needs people if it’s going to last. If the water or people are lost (through melting/ no snow for glaciers; through losing interest, finding something more interesting or new generations not continuing long running traditions.

– Once it is gone we can see the full effect it had but never really imagine what it was like. Glaciers leave huge scars (valleys) cut in the rock and different deposits of stones. From the rock types and the shape of the scar we can start to piece together what it was like, but in truth we never really know. The same’s true of culture: try what we might to resurrect a culture from its different parts, it’ll always be lacking the people who made it happen.

* thanks be to:
– going skiing this week,
– the woman who crashed into me, ending my snowboarding and giving me nought else to but type,
– A-level geography, which taught me the fundamentals of glaciation (some of which I still remember…)

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Posted in: Culture, Philosophy