After reading eleven chapters in a book called Culture Making, I was (unsurprisingly, I think) taken aback when I came began the third and final section of the book, which begins with a chapter bluntly titled “Why We Can’t Change The World”. It seems a little odd for Andy Crouch to place a chapter highlighting the futile nature of what his book seems to be encouraging us to do, that is, to take up our role as “culture makers” at the end of the book. Crouch has just spent eleven chapters discussing culture making, and immediately prior to this chapter, spent a chapter painting a glorious vision of the role our culture making plays in heaven. On the other hand, now is a good time for a dose of reality and humility, and from that perspective, a chapter titled “Why We Can’t Change The World” makes sense.
Crouch opens the chapter with an interesting experiment that he and a friend did several years ago: they searched Harvard’s library system for all of the books that included some permutation of “change the world” in its title. What they found was that the vast majority of those books had been published since the 1990s. The further you went back in time, the fewer such books were published, with no such books published before 1900. Crouch concludes:
We moderns certainly can’t be accused of lacking self-confidence. The explosion of books about “changing the world” fits our self-image — we are world changers. There is indisputable literal truth to the phrase. Powered by the twentieth century’s explosion of technology, humanity has multiplied our effect on the natural world with measurable global results, from the deepest sea to the thinnest outer atmosphere. Six billion human beings, whose total mass is less than one millionth of a billionth of one percent of the mass of earth, all of whose works, even today, are invisible from space (except at night, when our cities radiate light skyward), are changing their own and only world in extraordinary, not entirely predictable and possibly irreversible ways.
This notion of “changing the world” has become enthusiastically adopted by the Church, where we are told that we need to change the world for God. But therein lies a paradox, one that Crouch spends the rest of the chapter exploring. Specifically, though the Church seeks to change the world, more often than not, the Church has far less effect than it thinks and in fact, is changed by the world as much as it changes the world. Crouch highlights four dangers or issues with this high view of our ability to change the world, and they are sobering indeed.
First is the issue of scale. In the first article of my “Culture Making” series, I wrote “Crouch… begins his book in a fairly ambitious manner, by attempting to define what, exactly, culture is. And as he does so, it quickly becomes apparent that our commonplace understanding and definition of culture is probably too small.” This presents a significant challenge because, if we’re going to realistically talk about “changing the world”, about “culture making”, we need to define what we mean by those terms. After all, is it really, truly possible to change the world for every single one of its six billion human inhabitants? More often than not, when we talk of “changing the world”, we’re actually referring to the world around us, to a particular group of people within a particular social, geographical, and temporal context.
Not only are we faced with the difficulty of any world-changing attempt achieving the proper effect due to the scales involved, but the scales involved also make it impossible to look around at current attempts and determine which ones will actually achieve that effect. In other words, it’s easy to look back in history and say that it was obvious that a certain cultural artifact, such as the interstate highway system, would have a huge effect on the world, but at the time, would it have been so easy?
This brings up the second issue: survivor bias. As we look around the world and take in all of the the culture-making attempts that have had significant effects, it is very easy to forget about all of the failed attempts, all of the attempts that certainly did their best to change the world but were ultimately relegated to the dustbins of history.
It is amazing how much cultural analysis of all sorts is tainted by survivor bias… Most of us, unless we are very careful historians, form our impression of the past by the books that are still in print and the music that is still performed, forgetting that while some cultural goods (Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, say) were bestsellers then and are bestsellers now, many others that were the talk of the town then are now completely forgotten, and some that we now consider classics were barely noticed at the time (such as the works of J. S. Bach, which largely languished until they were championed by Mendelssohn eighty years after Bach’s death).
Later, Crouch writes:
History and historians make our lives easier by preselecting the most salient, world-changing cultural goods by sheer force of time and attrition. We learn about and remember the inventions, equations and colors that changed the world. But we can easily forget that at the time, which invention, equation and color would prevail was an entirely open question. And then we can easily deceive ourselves into thinking that changing the world is a great deal easier than it actually is.
The third issue that Crouch brings up is related to sufficient conditions. If you want your cultural good to have some noteworthy effect on the world, there are certain “necessary” conditions that you must meet. You must have a way to design, create, and produce your good. You must have some way of distributing it. You must have some method for promoting it and telling people about it. You must have a way to measure its success (financially, culturally, etc.). However, those aren’t inherently sufficient for your good to succeed, to triumph over its competitors, to have the effect you seek.
Crouch’s primary point here is that “at a large enough scale, there are no sufficient conditions for cultural change”. In other words, it is impossible to completely guarantee world-changing success. We might be able to have a fairly guaranteed amount of success in smaller cultural circles, such as our own homes and families (but even there, success is not a given). But the further we move out from our immediate culture circles, the more we find that our efforts are dependent upon the cultural goods and efforts of others, or as Crouch puts it, “My ability to make small changes in my local world is dwarfed by my dependence on the changes other people make at larger scales of culture.”