8 inventions that create global culture
From the kitchen to the dance club to the waves, here are inventions that help mix culture everywhere.
IN THE SMALL PATAGONIAN TOWN of El Bolsón, there are these young crews all riding downhill bikes. When I first moved there I couldn’t figure it out. They were everywhere, wheelie-dropping off ledges in the Plaza Pagano, bombing down the local mountain, Piltriquitrón.
While the sport fit the terrain perfectly, it was puzzling how it got there and had become, evidently, a widespread part of the youth culture.
Then I met Shea Jordan, an American whose family had moved to Patagonia in the early ’90s. A few years back, Shea had brought the first downhill bikes to Bolsón from the US. He eventually became downhill champion in Argentina. His friends also became expert riders, and in the five years that followed (and through the local bike shops in town) an entire downhill subculture had developed.
This is how culture mixes. It’s driven by the youth. It’s happens out in the streets or up in the mountains, or at the local surf break. It develops in dance halls, kitchens, makeshift recording studios. It’s pollinated by artists, musicians, athletes, cooks, designers, and travelers. It takes shape within the local terrain, environment, language.
As with the bike, certain inventions have been helped cultures take root in different places.
The following list includes both “artifacts” that are brought from one place to another such as bikes, as well as the devices / technology that have literally enabled the mashing up or collage-making of different cultural expressions. In general, I’ve looked for “culture” as what’s accessible to everyday people. I like what you can find people doing, listening to, playing at ground level as opposed to hidden away in museums.
What other inventions have helped create global culture in this way?
Modern surf culture's spread from Hawaii to California to the rest of the world can literally be traced back to a handful of surfers (notably Duke Kahanamoku) and travelers who helped bring surfing from Hawaii to California. But early surfers were limited by the boards themselves - massive (sometimes 15 feet long) and heavy. In the '60s, Gordon Clark perfected a formula for urethane foam ("Clark foam") that led to lightweight, modern shortboard design. Shortboards are easier to travel with and leave behind with locals - a fairly common custom among surfers. Surf culture continues to be spread literally everywhere there are people and waves, such as Gaza. Photo by A. Strakey
From construction workers to office workers, lunch at a food truck is a tiny moment each day in which people interact with those from other cultures, and learn words and tastes they probably never would've known otherwise. Food truck in LA. Photo by Steve Lyon
Samplers / MPCs
Samplers allow musicians and producers to record, manipulate, and sequence short segments of audio. Although most people outside of the music business or electronic music scenes might not know much about samplers, they are responsible - particularly the iconic MPC (such as the MPC 1000 and 2000xl pictured here) - for virtually every hit song created by hip hop and electronic music producers today. Sample-based music production is in many ways like modern jazz, mixing rhythms and instruments from different cultures together to get new combinations. Photo by Ghost Dad
Digital cameras give us an unprecedented ability to capture and share imagery of different places and cultures. And as affordable cameras like the GoPro (pictured here) make photography possible anywhere anytime (underwater, while BASE jumping, etc.), it gives people a glimpse into the lives of athletes and terrain that they would never get to see otherwise. Photo by Remko Van Dokkam
A couple years ago I saw a US soldier at the Atlanta airport with a skateboard attached to his backpack. The image stuck with me. What kids would see him skating and maybe want to try? In the last few years, skate scenes have emerged in areas that might seem unlikely, such as Egypt and Afghanistan. Photo by Luke Hayfield
DJ Mixers - and the technology that enabled a DJ to listen to / cue / beatmatch a track while another track was still playing, or use a crossfader to switch between or play tracks simultaneously - evolved during the 1960s and '70s, and allowed people to continue dancing without a pause in the music. In 1973, DJ Kool Herc, a Jamaican DJ living in the Bronx, pioneered a technique using two record players and a mixer to isolate breaks and rhythms, giving birth to hip hop. As music has evolved, the entire concept of "mixing" has taken on an aesthetic of pulling all different cultural and musical influences into DJ sets. Photo by fluffisch
Spray paint was invented in the US in 1949 by Edward Seymour and was adopted in the 1970s by graffiti artists. Although graffiti is still outlawed in many parts of the world, its acceptance as a form of street art and culture is gaining in many places, particularly in South America (see Santiago and Buenos Aires). As art scenes are often elitist or out of the economic reach of many people, street art becomes a way to take cultural expression back into their hands. Photo by EvolUtionary
The Internet has become a kind of lingua franca between people from different places and cultures worldwide, both in the sense of information about other cutlrues, but also in the social sense. All the inventions here, and the culture and media they help mix and create, are reinforced by the Internet. Photo by Ed Yourdon