Predicting our future cultural vocabulary

There is no way to predict the content of our cultural vocabulary in a thousand years, although I imagine that a hundred years from now, the traditional part of it—Moses, Don Quixote, Abraham Lincoln, biblical and Shakespearean aphorisms—will mostly be intact. The more recently a cultural reference has entered our cultural vocabulary, however, the more likely it will disappear. It is likely we will remain loyal to Abraham and Faust, but perhaps not to J. R. Ewing and Stephen Hawking.

It’s also safe to predict that for the foreseeable future, cultural ephemera will appear and disappear at an in ever-increasing rate. There are just so many inputs to our cultural vocabulary nowadays, including advertisements, television shows, movies, pop music, celebrity culture and political scandals, in addition to works of high culture like serious drama, classical music, literary novels and scientific advances. The mixing of cultures adds to the inputs: African, Latin, Indian, Chinese and Japanese and other cultural references seep into any western culture much more readily and easily than during medieval times.

Beyond predicting the probable sources of change in our cultural vocabulary, we can’t say much about the future. For one thing, it’s possible that government and large organizations will exercise more social control in the future and freeze the development of our cultural vocabulary. Or perhaps somewhere today lives a woman or man destined to found a new religion and thus join Moses, Buddha, Mohhamad and Confucius as important religious figures with whom virtually every adult has familiarity. No one could have guessed in 600 CE that most people around the world would know something about Mohammad. Julius Caesar in 60 BCE was merely another scurrilous politician and the richest man in Rome, not the embodiment of empire and imperialism.

We can identify the processes by which our cultural vocabulary will evolve, but it’s impossible to predict what its actual contents will be in the future. In a thousand years, will audiences smile knowingly on hearing the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth? Will Odysseus still serve as a symbol of the clever and Isaac as a symbol of the pious? Will people still look at “Guernica” and say, “Yes, Picasso.

And what about Mean Joe Greene, Joe Isuzu and Mrs. Olsen? Will they still make people think of soda pop, automobiles and coffee in a thousand years? Will they have been reduced to their emotional essence and symbolize friendship, oily rascality and neighborliness? Or will they be as forgotten as Queen Blanche, Bertha of the Big Foot and the other ladies of times past whom the 16th century French poet Francois Villon compared to the snows of yesteryear?

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